Intel: Microsoft's ARM-on-Windows deal no threat
'Bring it on!'
CES 2011 Microsoft may have caused a disturbance in the PC Force with its announcement that the next version of Windows will run on ARM processors, but Intel isn't worried.
"You want to come and party in our kitchen and rattle the pots and pans? I've got Sandy Bridge. Bring it on," Intel spokesman Dave Salvator told The Reg on Friday at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
Before that pugnacious pronouncement, however, Salvator tried to minimize the shock value of Microsoft's announcement. "To some degree, it's not really news," he said. "We've had Windows on ARM for years. It's called Windows CE."
When reminded that Windows CE was not exactly the most impressive or powerful mobile operating system, Salvator admitted: "Well, that's why they call it 'WinCE'."
Then he gave the "no news" dodge one more try. "When you think about it, Windows 7 Phone, that's running on ARM." When we pointed out that Microsoft's smartphone OS is an entirely different animal than Windows for PCs, Salvator countered: "Fair enough – but it is Windows on ARM. Granted, we're into a little bit of semantics, but that's the marketing name – but [not] architecturally."
Feints completed, Salvator chose a more logical argument. "If you look at the complexity of the Windows kernel," he said, "if you look at the complexity of the Windows 7 operating system, if you look at the performance demands of that operating system – frankly, I welcome [the announcement].
"Because here's the thing: when people talk about ARM, they tend to point immediately to power: 'Oh, it's all about power, they do really great power'." Yeah, that's true, they have pretty good low power, but with Moorestown, frankly, so do we." Being Salvator's polite guest, we didn't point out that Moorestown barely dips its toes inside the power envelope for smartphones.
From Salvator's point of view, creating an ARM-equipped device that could compete with a PC would negate ARM's power advantage. "For them to really come and do anything serious that would go into into a bona fide PC device and deliver a full-fledged PC platform, they're going to have to do some different things ... like considering things like an out-of-order processing execution engine, going multi-core, and cranking up their clocks."
Dual-core ARM chips do already exist – Motorola's new Xoom tablet has one, for example. Also, Intel's netbook processor, Atom, is an in-order processor, one of many architectural choices that limit its performance to far less that that of its "full-fledged PC" brethren in the company's Core line.
Salvator pointed out that if an ARM chip were to be built whith those full-fledged upgrades: "There's some immutable laws of physics that say that if you do those things your transistor count is going to go up, so is your voltage, so is your heat, so is your power. So this miraculous power advantage that everyone seems to think is [ARM's] ace in the hole completely evaporates."
Salvator noted that some observers say that Windows-on-ARM will be a competitor to full-fledged PCs, but he's not buying it. And when asked if ARM could be an Atom competitor in the lower rungs of the PC market however, he had a story to tell.
"Let me give you one quick anecdote," he said, which he titled Aventures in Mispositioning. "When we first shipped Atom, a couple of clever system makers thought that they could basically take a chassis like that one" – he pointed to a plain-vanilla 15-inch laptop – "put an Atom inside it and call it a notebook, and sell it, and try to capture a premium for it sort of between the typical netbook and notebook price points. And they really kind of patted themselves on the back and said, 'Aren't we clever'. Until the returns started. Because people brought it back, saying: 'You know, I bought this expecting the full-fledged PC experience, but I didn't get it'."
To Salvator, it's all about the experience. "Historically," he said, at Intel, what we build are phenomenal engines. But the company thinking has historically been ... inside out: 'build a great engine and they will come'."
To be a success in the consumer market, according to Salvator, a device maker has to sell the experience, not just the engine. "Historically, we have not architected experiences. That's what Apple has done brilliantly. That's what anyone who does a good [consumer electronics] device has done well. They have to build the right solution – they need the right ASICs, they need the right softwre, they need the right knobs, they need the right plumbing – but what they ultimately need to think about, if they're selling to consumers, is 'I have to deliver a phenomenal experience – there has to be a joy associated with ths device, or it will fail'."
Salvator says that there is "an interesting transition that we're going through inside of Intel," and that transition is to focus on the consumer experience, and not merely the hardware behind it – hence the video-centric rollout of the
Sandy Bridge 2nd Generation Intel Core processors earlier this week.
But as important as the consumer experience might be, he said, "Behind every great experience is great performance. And behind every great performance is a great engine."
In Salvator's view, ARM may be just fine for such consumer experiences as those provided by Apple's iPhone or any one of a squillion Android smartphones, but at low power-consumption levels it can't have the oomph to provide what customers expect when it comes to a Windows-based machine.
He illustrated that contention using the example of today's near-ubiquitous HD video. "'Create' is becoming the new 'consume'," he said, "and to have a great creation experience, you need to have great performance, and to have great performance, you need a great engine."
And that's not going to be an ARM processor running Windows, according to Salvator. ®
Sir is a title
Does this mean Intel will change Microsoft's status from 'ARMless' to 'mostly ARMless'?
I was just going...
"And that's not going to be an ARM processor running Windows"
Correct. It'll be an ARM processor running Linux. I hope.
Intel says "Windows is too bloated to be saved by an ARM processor", so people will keep buying hot power hungry x86 boxes to make it run acceptably fast?
Quite possibly true, and MS' announcement is all to stall OEM defectors to Linux who can compete with Apple on use-versus-battery life.
As for playing the 'HD video' card in his argument, surly that would be subject to hardware acceleration in the graphics chip set, no?
He's a spokesman - what else was he going to say?
For an alternative point of view, read this:
The ARM Cortex A9 is expected to have "comparable performance to the Atom". And here's a comparative Atom vs. Cortex A9 demonstration video here:
The Atom netbook on the left is running at 1.6Ghz with graphics acceleration, while the Cortex A9 development board on the right has no graphics acceleration enabled (it's a development board) and it's running at only 500MHz. YES! A quarter the speed of the Atom CPU, and it's only just slightly slower at rendering web pages.
Despite this impressive performance, ARM are clearly not hoping to compete with Intel in terms of their "Core" line of processors, but they're within touching distance of the Atom (in terms of raw performance, possibly better in clock-for-clock terms) and they blow Atom away in terms of power consumption.
In terms of "the experience" I'd say ARM with the Cortex A9 should now be able to compete favourably with the experience you get from an Intel Atom based system quite easily, and when they're both running Windows the ARM based system may well be the better option over Atom.
The Intel spokesman is only saying what he has to say to keep his job, and he knows he's talking cr@p just as well as the rest of us. The threat from ARM is very real.
"immutable laws of physics"
""There's some immutable laws of physics that say that if you do <go bigger/faster> your transistor count is going to go up, so is your voltage, so is your heat, so is your power."
Probably true. But it's all relative. ARM are already so far ahead of x86 in this respect that even when ARM clock faster and add more cores and more memory ARM are still going to perform better for the same power or use less power for comparable performance.
How does that work? Well part of it is stuff that x86 simply can't do without stopping being x86. Things like ARM code density (how much memory it needs to do a given piece of work) cannot be bolted on to an x86 without it stopping being an x86. That's because the ARM instruction set and architecture isn't evolved from a 4bit washing machine controller derivative, it's designed clean from the ground up with features like predication (less need for branches so code is smaller AND faster) and the ARM/Thumb subset using 16bit instead of 32bit instructions for ultimate code density.
Part of it is also about the years of experience of SoC design that the ARM licensees have. Neither Intel nor any of their recent acquisitions (McAfee??) have that experience or skill, and that kind of thing doesn't come overnight.
So, other than their core Wintel platform, what successes have Intel had in the last decade or so?