Monday, May 24, 2010

What were you thinking Intel?

Whenever I see an amazing product driven by an ARM based processor, I continually ask myself why Intel sold off its line of ARM processors (known as XScale) to Marvell. Here is quick recap for those who aren't familiar with ARM versus Intel's x86 based CPUs:

ARM is not a chip maker, they are a software company. The software they write is a little different though. It is called a Hardware Description Language. This means that its end purpose is not to be interpreted by a machine, but instead to define a machine. Other companies that make computer chips can take the software definition for the ARM CPU core, license it, customize it, then fabricate it. This provides flexibility in what ARM based CPUs are, the end-customer decides what comprises it.

The word "legacy" best describes x86. I was around 10 when I first used an IBM compatible x86 based computer. Since then the processor been upgrading via duck tape and all sorts of complex modifications in order to improve speed but maintain backwards compatibility. The end result is that I can still play the computer games I played when I was 10 on my PC.

Although x86 chip makers (Intel and AMD) over the years have tried to simplify the architecture, x86 processors have to do more "stuff" in order to maintain both backwards compatibility, and compatibility with Windows. This stuff consumes power, which is why you haven't seen anything smaller than netbooks driven by x86. The more power a CPU consumes, the larger the device using it has to be.

Because the desktop PC market has saturated, and smart phones are taking off, Intel really should have kept their ARM processors. They already had an edge in the market; Blackberries, one of the top iPhone competitors, are powered by xScale CPUs. But instead Intel sold off the processor line. They are restricting themselves to netbooks, laptops, and desktops. Why?

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