I have been poking around with ARM chips via the beagleboard for a while now, and I have to say that at a far lower speed, they are much more energy efficient than the Intel Atom, and I have a hard time finding the difference in performance. After Intel’s tirade at that conference, I was sure that there was something to the threat from ARM, now we are seeing some rumors about the possible fruits of the Apple / PA Semi merger : AppleInsider exclusive: Apple Tablet Early Next Year.
While that is interesting in its own right, I think there is more at stake here than just what chips are powering the coolest devices. I have been waiting, as have most everyone else, for this conceptual tablet. I want to not have to carry a Kindle, an iPhone, and my laptop. It would be awesome if I had a single device that used wireless HDMI to connect to my screen and speakers, bluetooth to communicate with my keyboard and mouse, and 3G for phone calls and mobile data. This mythical tablet is the closest thing to this. If it runs full OS X, and has the ability to run iPhone apps as well as native OS X apps it will complete the hat trick. It should have a virtual keyboard for when I am not near my bluetooth keyboard, and when it is in proximity, it should use it, without dialogs or configuration. Likewise when the monitor is away, it should display on device, otherwise, it should use my monitor.
So even if this device is only partially what my dream is, it will be enough to get me to buy it and probably most of everyone else will buy it too. That makes for an interesting shift in the consumption of applications. Now people will start developing for mobile first and desktop second. This means that they are developing for ARM first and Intel second.
From the server room to our pockets, power is a concern. One of the things that I can’t wait for is the ability to have a server that runs 100 ARM Cortex A9 cores at 1 GHz instead of 8 CPUs at 3.4 GHz. The former server would consume way less power and perform far better as a web application server due to the extreme threading that would be possible. Desktop machines would follow directly behind with 50 core desktop machines with 50 PowerVR video card on a chip chips with the monitor divided up in a 25 x 25 grid ( this will take some work ). This could be a very thin box with only one very silent fan and have insane performance. Not to mention that the same machine could be a laptop that runs way cooler than my MacBook Pro, which hovers around 135 degrees(f) while just playing iTunes. It could get 16 hours of battery life using the same battery that I use today.
In this world, Apple is far better positioned than Microsoft, with their / Kronos’ OpenCL. Snow Leopard will be in a great place to benefit from this type of architecture. Not to mention the AppStore, Apple has the DRM, distribution, signing infrastructure all in place, and hundreds of thousands of developers know how to use it, don’t think they aren’t thinking about pushing this model to the macintosh for application distribution, it just makes too much sense.
The future is clearly mobile, but who is going to lead that charge is an open question. Apple has made moves to secure their superiority for the next few years, Microsoft appears to be going backwards. Intel just can’t seem to break into the ultra-low power CPU space without an acquisition. I think the Wind River purchase was to put a dent in the number of ARM customers. Clearly the future is not dominated by WinTel. I am shocked that AMD hasn’t abandoned its platform and moved to ARM computer on a die chips, I am sure you could imagine how awesome it would be to have a muti-core ARM chip with an ATI GPU on a die. Intel would say that the ARM doesn’t perform as well as their Atom CPU, but that was the mistake that let AMD back into the game before, they just kept sticking to the performance argument while the market was telling them that the current speeds were fast enough, and that they wanted better performance per watt. If Intel hadn’t had that R&D group pushing ahead with the Mobile Pentium in Israel, the computer industry would look very different today.
I think that the Apple tablet will be a game changer, and will ultimately be their most successful computer launch, even more so than the iMac which brought them back. I am afraid that if Microsoft and Intel can’t answer, the one-two-punch of Steve Jobs, and Google will finally have felled the giant duopoly.