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2 Feb 2010

by Noel

Is the iPad the beginning of the end for Intel?

Much has been written about the iPad since its launch. I’m sympathetic to the concerns about the closed nature of the iPad, and I think the iBookStore (along with the Kindle) is going to have a big effect on the book market, but I want to focus on something I haven’t seen much discussed: the A4 chip powering the iPad.

What you need to know about the A4 is this: at its core is an ARMCortex-A9 MP CPU. ARM cores also power the iPhone and about every other smartphone out there. Intel just can’t compete in this market as their chips require too much power. This weakness is, paradoxically, a result of their greatest strength: the Intel instruction set. Even the most modern Intel chip still retains the ability to execute code for the ancient 8086. This ensures you can run just about any program ever written for an Intel machine on the latest CPU, giving Intel an enormous software base to leverage. However supporting this instruction set comes at a cost. The 8086 instruction set is not a good fit for modern CPU designs, and the instruction set has accreted decades of cruft to try and wedge modern features into it. To get acceptable performance all modern Intel chips have vast amounts of silicon devoted to instruction decoding; that is, the process of turning instructions into so-called micro-ops, which are what the CPU actually executes. All this silicon takes power, which is why ARM handily beats Intel on performance-per-Watt.

Now this wasn’t an issue for Intel even a few years ago. But we’re seeing three things that ought to make them worried. The first is the iPad, showing that little devices can grow bigger and perhaps move into the PC market, in much the same way PCs took over from the scientific workstations of Apollo, DEC, Sun and others. The second is the increasing concern for performance-per-Watt from people like Google and Amazon whose huge server farms power the major Internet services. The third is open source software, and particularly GCC’s support for just about every CPU on the market. This means the software can be easily recompiled for a new architecture. Suddenly Intel’s dominance doesn’t seem so assured.

So perhaps in a few years ARM will become the dominant architecture, rather than Intel. Apple have already shown that switching architecture (twice!) isn’t so painful. And as someone who has been writing an Intel assembler for fun I can’t say I see this as a bad thing.

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