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ARM's Efficiency May Lead to an Intercept Course with Intel

By Wesley Fenlon

ARM's CEO describes the company's focus on power consumption over speed.

Intel is known to have the best chips and chip production facilities in the PC market, but the reign of the high-performance desktop processor may not last forever. Intel knows it--the company is steadily working to expand to more power-efficient chips for mobile devices and low-cost computers, though no smartphone or tablet running an x86 chip has taken off yet. In the mobile space, the ARM architecture rules absolutely, and the chipmaker's focus on energy-efficiency may be their ticket into the desktop PC market in the long-term.

A recent interview with ARM CEO Warren East focuses on the efficiency of ARM. The company's chips seem poised to spread from mobile devices to just about everything. East's statements about servers are especially important:

Servers use huge amounts of power. Data centers get located in strange regions of the world where it’s naturally cooler. More and more of this mobile stuff [also] means more and more servers are required. We’ve actually changed the way people design servers [by making them smaller and lower-powered]. Instead of being restricted to big data centers where you know you can get massive amounts of power in, you can distribute these things. You could have many more servers. The analogy I would use is routers. Once upon a time, routers were effectively mini-computers in a massive box. Cisco managed to reduce that to things you have in your home. There’s no reason it shouldn’t go that way for servers.

Apple is reportedly researching the switch to ARM processors in Macs. ARM chips are still much less powerful than Intel's x86 design, but they're evolving at a dramatic rate, as the smartphone market proves year after year. We're fast approaching the "good enough" point where ARM chips could replace Intel processors in laptops like the MacBook Air. Windows RT, the version of Windows 8 running on the Microsoft Surface, already runs on ARM, albeit without support for any of the millions of the "legacy" x86 programs.

It's clear that as demand for portability and battery life increases in our everyday computing devices, so will ARM's ability to chip away at Intel's dominance. And while Intel will not fade away without a fight, ARM-licensees like Texas Instrument and Nvidia could easily snatch up as much (or more) of the market as waning x86 chipmaker AMD. And East says nothing is stopping ARM chips from being high-performance, other than the company's own focus. "The ARM microprocessor was never designed for mobile in the first place," he told Technology Review. "It ran a computer with a Windows-type operating system before Microsoft ever had Windows, called RISC-OS. There’s nothing inherent in the microprocessor architecture that says you can’t have computers and keyboards and mice."