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Notes from the Product Manager’s Desk

Posted on in Categories Cincom Smalltalk

“History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes” – A rhyme may be underway

Notes from the PM desk:

Decades ago, “real” work was done on workstations, a marked step up in power at the time, from common x86 based PC’s.

SparcStations, SiliconGraphics (SGI) machines, Apollo, HP PA-Risc machines, etc once ruled the roost.

Meanwhile, a “paranoid” Intel (“Only the paranoid survive” was Andy Groves mantra) made steady improvements every year.  The writing was on the wall – lower cost but increasing in power x86 computers would gradually start replacing and overtaking the workstation market. It did.

For a while it seemed a RISC (reduced instruction set computer)  vs  CISC (complex instruction set computer) battle, but I think it was the heavy investment for market share that made the real difference. Intel was relentless in its effort to improve and compete.

AMD has challenged the Intel dominance, first in the aughts, then again in recent times.  AMD is currently a big challenge to Intel, with better price-to-performance CPU’s, and massively multi-core chips (you can buy an AMD CPU with 64 cores right now!).

Years ago, a friend from college went to work for a California company called 3DO in the early 90’s.  The 3DO hardware used a custom ARM RISC chip, the first time I became aware of the “Acorn RISC Machine” (ARM).  Arm holdings, the company, was different, in that they licensed CPU designs to customers, and did not fabricate their designs (“fabless” – fabs are a massive investment).

Almost two decades later, ARM chips, often highly customized, became the staple of mobile devices like the iPhone and Android based phones.  These devices are prolific, so there are large investments to continually improve the fabrication process, which was a large factor in Intel’s success.  Intel was once ahead one to two generations of processing nodes, but today trails TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company).  A node is a manufacturing process level, and improved nodes make denser semiconductor chips with closer features, usually measured in nanometers (i.e. A 10nm process node).  (A sheet of paper is around 100,000 nanometers thick).

Apple uses TSMC for fabrication of iPhone and iPad processors.

A famous quote: “History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes” (attributed to Mark Twain).

A rhyme may well be underway.  Arm chips, getting more powerful, capable, and abundant with cores, are perhaps poised to do to the x86 market (Intel/AMD), what the x86 market did to the workstation market a few decades back.

Many of you heard Apple’s announcement at the Apple WWDC on June 22nd 2020, that Apple is beginning the transition of Macs to ARM processors.  This has been rumored for years, and no doubt, Apple has had (internally) ARM versions of every OSX / MacOS release for years.  Apple did the exact same thing prior to transitioning from PowerPC chips to Intel chips 15 years ago. 

I expect the ARMs to be successful in slim MacBooks first, where lightweight and battery efficiency are important, and then move up the chain as successive generations become more powerful.  

Microsoft has been experimenting with this for years as well.  A decade ago we had “Windows Embedded” (Windows 7 on Arm); today we have Windows 10 ARM, and a recent MS Surface Pro X which is Arm-based.  Reviews are mixed, but it might be it is an “OK, but can only get better” type of scenario.