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Is ARM Displacing X86? Is History Repeating Itself?

Posted on in Categories Cincom Smalltalk, Smalltalk

Notes from Arden Thomas, the Cincom Smalltalk Product Manager (originally written late June 2020):

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

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 like 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.

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, which was 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).

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

Update:  AMD announced its Zen3 chips in late October 2020 and started delivering them on November 6th.  For the first time ever, AMD chips outperform Intel chips in single-core performance.  It also has offerings with higher core counts.

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 the 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 22, 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 light weight and battery efficiency are important, and then move up the chain as successive generations become more powerful.  

Update:  Apple announced its new M1 ARM chip in early November 2020.  It will be used in MacBooks and Mac minis, and boasts (surprisingly) competitive performance. The M1, with 4 low-power and 4 high-power cores, will likely have lower power usage compared to the AMD and Intel counterparts.  If the claims are true, Apple has made faster than expected improvements for ARM competing with x86.

Microsoft has been experimenting with ARM 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 possibly be an “OK, but can only get better” type of scenario.

We’d love to hear your thoughts. What do you think about this?  What has been your experience over the years with changes? What about ARM? What moves will you make? Contact the Cincom Smalltalk Product Team and let us know.