In the last few years, we’ve seen many typical computer applications move to phones, tablets and other portable devices with little computing power. This was accompanied by a “geekification of the nation”. Fifteen years ago, talking to other people using a keyboard was perceived as odd and geeky. Today, instant messaging, SMS and social networks like Facebook are the norm. This is a socio-technological paradigm shift, with both technology and social norms advancing in lockstep.
Now among rumors of Apple purchasing ARM (a specialist in designing processors with low power consumption), Microsoft looking for someone to port their systems to ARM-based servers, Google rumored to be interested in developing ARM-based servers and the iPad, all Android phones and almost everything in the mobile sector running on ARM, we might be witnessing another technology shift.
Up to this point, Intel’s x86 architecture has remained unchallenged as the de-facto standard for personal computing. Even though the base architecture is outdated, it has managed to keep up with the market through a lot of patching and gaffa-taping of new features.
Yes, Intel had a brief moment of horror when AMD’s AMD64 instruction set extension became the king of mainstream 64-bit computing, but that is long forgotten — the instructions were absorbed into Intel’s chips as x86_64. But Intel has never faced a challenge like the ARM one, the battle for the low-voltage processor market. So far, they can’t compete, not with the x86 instruction set; Atom processors are far too inefficient for the small devices that the (social) masses would use.
I believe it is again both a social and a technological evolution that will change the market. Without customers queuing up for iPads and iPhones, the ARM market would still be smaller. And people buying iPads and iPhones are not generally the biggest geeks, they’re your average technology users, or not even interested in technology at all. They don’t care which instruction set their device understands, they just want it to run smoothly and for a very long time on a single battery charge.
This is a big opportunity for the Linux kernel. This kernel has been running on ARM chips (and PPC, and SPARC, and MIPS, and…) for years and years, something that Microsoft can’t accomplish with their Windows kernel. Linux powers the Android operating system, it can even run on an iPhone. Next to purely technological aspects, the Linux and Free Software communities are very quick at embracing new social technologies, unlike many large corporations. This again feeds back into the whole “hey, I wanna be able to tweet from the toilet” social phenomenon, and that drives the development of new, mobile and social Free Software.
Don’t ask me why, and I surely don’t claim that I can connect the dots any better than other people, but I think that ARM + Linux + social mobile stuff are the harbingers of a significant change in computing that will happen in the next decade.
The fact that even many large players like Microsoft and Apple are now supporting more open standards instead of their own proprietary sandboxes is another element to all this. Could it be that the market will be more fairly split among the competition? 25% Microsoft, 25% Apple, 25% Google and the rest split between Free Software solutions?
It’s a very pretty idea.