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For a long, long time there has been only one standard for the processors found in our personal computers -- and that standard was x86.
It all started more than 30 years ago when Intel rolled out the 8080, the the first really popular 8-bit microprocessor. Although there were some other early contenders, the 8080 was the chip that really kick-started the microprocessor craze which eventually delivered the high-powered machines we use today.
The Intel chip wasn't the most sophisticated of its era, lacking such features as relative indexed relative addressing, block-move and the like. Despite bringing out an improved chip in the form of the 8085, Intel was losing the microprocessor marketplace to Zilog's Z80 until IBM opted to use the new and relatively unproven 16-bit Intel 8088 in its "Personal Computer".
I suspect nobody will know for sure why IBM chose the 8088 instead of the far more elegant and powerful Motorola 68000 but in doing so, big-blue cemented Intel's place as "the" microprocessor manufacturer and positioned the x86 as "the standard" for desktop computing.
Yes, I can hear all the Apple users tapping out emails of protest with words such as "don't forget the Mac -- it used a 68000 processor" and they'd be quite right. However, in the numbers game, Apple was a very small player back then.
Since the late 1980s, when the IBM PC became the machine all others aspired to copy, Intel has "owned" the desktop CPU marketplace and has slowly evolved that humble 8088 processor through numerous iterations - each offering more power, more speed and greater functionality.
The Core i7 processors we use today are a real powerhouse of processing power and contain an astonishing 730 million transistors with the "top of the line" 6-core "Sandy Bridge-E" stacking an incredible 2.3 billion devices on its little slice of silicon.
Intel isn't the only company to make an X86 line of processors - AMD has invested huge amounts of money creating its own family of CPUs that conform to the standard and in some cases, they've been able to eek a little more performance from their silicon than Intel has - but mainly, AMD has sold on offering better value rather than improved technology.
However, for all their fire and brimstone, one of the huge handicaps now endured by the Intel's X86 processors is their degree of backwards compatibility. Imagine if today's car manufacturers felt it necessary to retain compatibility with the spoked wooden wheels used on the old Model-T Ford.
So how long can Intel continue to dominate the CPU marketplace with its X86 family of chips?
They've done lots of work adding features such as power-saving, turbo modes and other things that improve the range of applications to which this family is suited - but there's a new kid on the block who's really rocking their boat.
The new kid is ARM.
Unfettered by any legacy requirements, ARM processors are fresh and clean. They have been designed from the ground up to be lean, fast, energy efficient and scalable --all the things that the Intel processors really aren't.
As a result, ARM has found itself a wonderful home in portable devices such as the tablets, mobile phones and all sorts of other embedded electronics.
Best of all, ARM is cheap -- dirt cheap!
It's thanks to the use of an ARM processor that the Raspberry Pi can be sold for US$35 and now that includes 512MB of RAM. Unbelievable!
At the top end of the market, ARM is starting to encroach on Intel's territory and there's even a version of Windows (RT) that runs on this processor now. At the bottom end of the market, other manufacturers such as MicroChip and Atmel, who make huge numbers of low-powered 8/16-bit microcontrollers, are also facing the ARM challenge.
With ARM making such rapid inroads into markets previously "owned" by other companies, how will they survive?
Well it's simple...
ARM license their processor designs to anyone who wants to make them (and can ante-up with the necessary license fee).
ARM processors are already made by a large (and growing) number of companies such as ST, Atmel, etc, who have integrated the ARM core into their own products.
It's interesting to note that although AMD have signed up to license the ARM processor designs, Intel has not. It seems that Intel would rather row its own boat than license technology from anyone else. Will this be its undoing in a world where virtually all the growth in sales is occurring in the portable segment of the marketplace?
There are certainly "interesting times" ahead for Intel. I sure hope that their pride and adherence to the "not invented here" prejudice doesn't ankle-tap them in their quest to retain the crown of "most important CPU manufacturer in the world".
One of the great things about the technology marketplace is that the only constant is change. Where do readers think Intel will be in 10 year's time? Can they keep up or will they simply move their activities more towards the upper end of the CPU marketplace.
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