ARM: Heretic in the church of Intel, Moore's Law

For 30 years, the PC industry has treated Moore's Law with religious reverence. Its immutable commandment -- "Thou shalt double the number of transistors on circuits every 18 months" -- created an enviable business model with consumers spurred to buy new, more-powerful PCs every few years.

The gospel according to Moore also drove Intel Corp.'s engineers to perform miracles of miniaturization over the years. Its latest achievement, the 2 billion-transistor, quad-core Itanium Tukwila CPU, is due for release in the second half of this year.

Coincidentally, that's when the greatest blasphemy to Moore's Law -- and the biggest threat to Intel's dominance -- is expected to make its entrance into the PC market.

U.K.-based ARM Holdings PLC had modest financial success in 2007, with $518 million revenue and a $2.1 billion market cap. However, the chip maker is wildly successful in the mobile device market. ARM's chips are used in devices such as Apple's iPhone, RIM's BlackBerry and virtually every other cell phone, as well Lego's Mindstorm robots and Japanese toilet seats that talk and squirt.

Its partners -- ARM only designs the chips, preferring to license them to partners to make -- have shipped more than 10 billion processors in the past 23 years. By comparison, Intel has shipped somewhere between 1 billion and 2 billion CPUs.

ARM aims to extend its mobile device success into the red-hot netbook space.

Ian Drew, senior vice president at ARM, told Computerworld recently that he expects to see "six to 10 ARM-based netbooks this year, starting in Q3." The devices will run Linux or a Linux derivative, such as the Google-backed Android smartphone operating system, boast eight to 12 hours of battery life and cost about $200, he said.

Drew's price estimates for upcoming ARM-based netbooks represent savings of up to half off compared with today's cheapest Intel Atom-based netbooks, which range from $300 to $400.

Bob Castellano, an analyst at The Information Network, predicted that ARM netbooks will grab 55% of the market by 2012.

Are laws meant to be broken?

By Moore's Law, ARM would have no chance of success by bringing to bear chip technology that is underpowered in both senses of the word.

Its ARM7TDMI chip was first released in the mid-1990s. The 2006 version used in Apple Inc.'s iPod music player and Nintendo Co.'s DS game device still has a 100,000 transistors -- fewer than a 12 MHz Intel 286 processor from 1982 (according to this download PDF).

Some of ARM's most popular CPUs have as few as 15,000 to 20,000 transistors, said Drew. That number represents less than half that of Intel's 8088 chip in 1979, which powered the original IBM PC.

While not impressive on processing power, such modest chips also draw less than quarter of a watt of electricity -- a huge benefit for companies looking to design ever smaller devices with long battery lives. Before green computing was hip, ARM was walking the walk out of necessity to meet the requirements of its device-building customers.

ARM may have some chips today that eclipse the 1-GHz mark, but "it's not just about raw megahertz; it's about how effectively you use them," Drew said, adding that's why "we prefer to use different metrics, like megahertz per milliwatt of electricity."

New era, new Intel

With the market having shifted decisively last year from desktop to portable PCs, PC makers are looking for the same characteristics. Intel's successful Atom chips boast some impressively-low wattage ratings. But Drew, who spent 14 years at Intel before joining ARM in 2005, said ARM is still "better" on energy.

"We're not going to do an 'Intel Inside' brand," said Drew, because it would interfere with "our partnership model."

"We'd like to be more known," he continued, but the reality is "you're talking to a VP of marketing with very little marketing budget."

What about coining a green-minded version of Moore's Law? "We won't have something like Warren East's Law," named after ARM's CEO, said Drew. "We're quite a boring British company."

Besides netbooks, ARM has even talked about taking on Intel in the PC server market with its energy-efficient chips.

"Progress is being made," Drew said, adding that ARM chips, despite their lack of power, may be more efficient than multicore CPUs when measured by metrics such as "CO2 per Web page hit."

What could stall ARM in both the server and netbook markets is the lack of full Windows compatibility. Windows Mobile and many embedded versions of Windows do run on ARM chips. But they lack access to the many desktop applications available for Windows XP or the upcoming Windows 7.

Although Drew would welcome it, Microsoft Corp. has made no commitment to porting a full version of Windows to ARM. "Windows Mobile is a great OS with some great features," he said. "But does it run the full PC experience? Aren't there still a few missing tricks?"

Philip Solis, an analyst at ABI Research, agreed. "The market is moving too quickly for Microsoft," he said. "I know there is demand to see Windows ported over to ARM."

One concern about such a port of Windows would is whether an all-new platform optimized for tiny devices might lead to a compromised user experience. Drew scoffs, "Just because it's difficult to do, doesn't mean you shouldn't evaluate it."

Intel isn't standing still. Last month, it agreed to give Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. access to its Atom technology. But Drew said it was a "manufacturing, not a sales" relationship with a single partner, unlike the arrangements that ARM has. "It's not as wide as us," Drew said.

Moves are afoot in many corners, it seems. Last month, a Motley Fool blogger suggested that Apple might drop the ARM processor in the next version of the iPhone, either for the next version of Intel's Atom, codenamed Moorestown, or if Apple build its own chip using the technology from its acquisition of low-power chip maker P.A. Semi Inc. last year.

Should the report be taken seriously? "You'll have to ask Apple on that one," Drew said.

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