The trend nowadays for Big Tech is to design and develop a processor or chip. Apple has done it with their M1 processor, and prior to that their A series processors that appeared on the iPad and iPhone models. They are based on the ARM RISC-based instruction set architecture, which is a departure from the Intel x86 CISC-based architecture that is currently the most used in consumer computing products. Apple has never been a chip maker, but getting into it has clear benefits in terms of vertical integration. Now it is Microsoft’s turn to design their own chip, perhaps following the same path as Apple but starting from a different direction.
Microsoft is better known as a software productivity company. Their success started with operating systems used for personal computers in the 80’s. By the mid-90’s, Microsoft had market dominance in retail and business as they expanded their product line to include application software that run on top of their popular operating system. Microsoft established their dominance with the Windows operating system for the desktop and server market, BackOffice for applications and also fostered a community of software developers with their .NET framework. They were for the most part proprietary though, but would later accept the open source framework (though not for Windows itself). They did purchase open source repository GitHub and have not made changes to the system ever since, which open source developers were worried about.
From Software To Hardware
The move toward hardware was not a smooth transition for Microsoft. They failed to deliver on the promises of their smartphone (from Nokia), the Windows Phone, as it had many setbacks. During that time a little known competitor, Android, was also emerging. It was also not able to compete in the market against the likes of Apple and Samsung. They may have stopped at the idea of making a smartphone (for now), but that did not stop them from developing other products. This time it would be a success. They released the Surface line of tablets and 2–in-1 devices, which also led to the Surface Book laptop and Surface Studio workstation. In all these devices Microsoft is using Intel processors since they did not have their own brand of chip (i.e. CPU).
Now the challenge is to build a processor to run their devices within their own ecosystem. This is much like what Apple is creating by building their own chip. Microsoft will also adopt the ARM architecture to bring performance per watt efficiency that can help devices conserve energy and boost their performance. Microsoft will be starting their chip deployment for servers first, followed by their Surface line. This will be to upgrade their servers used on their Azure cloud platform. This very well means that Microsoft’s business strategy is to improve the performance of their cloud servers and also target data centers. It just remains to be seen how effective a solution this is once they are deployed.
Perhaps for the same reason as Apple, Microsoft would like to reduce their dependency on chip maker Intel when it comes to parts. The problem with the supply chain is often due to delays in delivery or shortage of supplies. Like Apple, Microsoft would be held back if there were problems with Intel’s production cycle. Unless Intel can deliver the parts ordered, Microsoft cannot release a product to market without the chip. The chip or CPU is the most important component in the device because without it the device will simply not work. Intel has even issued apologies in the past regarding their shipment delays. For big tech companies there is a lot to lose, so other options like building your own chip have to be considered.
The ARM architecture also has advantages over Intel’s x86 architecture. The most noticeable is in terms of energy efficiency. From a performance per watt perspective, ARM chips don’t consume as much power as x86 chips. For Intel’s top of the line processors, like the i9–9900K, the TDP rating is 95 W. While x86 chips achieve peak performance, it requires more energy due to the amount of processing required for its instruction set. Compare that to a high-end ARM-based processor like the A14 Bionic which has a TDP rating of just 6 W. Now it is fair to say that they are not a direct comparison since the i9 processors are made for computers while the A14 is for a smartphone. The point is that there is an apparent energy efficiency advantage in ARM chips that is significant. Later generations of ARM-based processors can match the i9 in performance but at a lower energy consumption.
More energy use generates more heat. The heat has to either be dissipated to the air or absorbed by a heatsink. Heat is what causes the CPU to throttle, which is by design. If the CPU is allowed to continue peak performance at its highest rated clock speed (MHz or GHz), it will overheat and damage the chip. That is why cooler, more energy efficient chips perform better since they are not being throttled. Most PC users install cooling systems on their rigs, whether it is for gaming or mining cryptocurrency, to keep the performance from degrading and to avoid overheating as well.
A main benefit of lower energy consumption is also a longer battery life. This is why smartphone makers chose ARM over x86. An x86 phone architecture would require more frequent charging and shorter battery life compared to an ARM-based phone architecture. The second benefit is in performance. The M1 has already shown in benchmarks that it has the potential to outperform the best x86 chips (Intel and AMD), though at sustained loads it may not maintain it. Things can only get better though, and remember these ARM chips consume less energy while providing the best performance per watt.
The Windows Question
I am wondering if the ARM-based chip will improve Windows performance or will Microsoft develop a Unix-like OS variant. I think it might make more sense to develop a new OS since Windows is not an overall stable system. That may sound harsh, but Windows has had its problems in the past. With the Windows 10 version many improvements in performance have been made to both the desktop and server versions.
Windows has for the most part been built for x86 processors since the start. The platform has even been called ‘Wintel’ (Windows and Intel), the perfect combination in personal computing during the 90’s. More mission critical systems run on Unix-like distributions in the backend, while Windows is the most popular for home and office environments. An ARM-based processor may ideally be more fit for a Unix-like OS, but a special Windows version can be developed. Microsoft is no stranger to that since they do have a Windows Embedded Compact OS family (formerly Windows CE) that supports both x86 and ARM-based processors.
You take the best features of Windows Embedded OS and put that into a Microsoft designed ARM chip and the results should be amazing (in theory). Microsoft would have complete control of the development, since they also own the operating system that it will run on. The next thing is to have a developer community build the applications around this platform to create an ecosystem to sustain further developments and improvements to the architecture.
Microsoft would probably design the chip while their partners would build it. Microsoft already has ARM-based processors on some of their Surface product line. They did not build those chips though, they partnered with Qualcomm. The Surface Pro X (2019 model) uses the Qualcomm SQ1 or SQ2 processor, a custom ARM-based CPU. It is not the x86 killer, but more like an experiment as Microsoft digs deeper into the potential of ARM computing. The performance is actually nothing like the Apple M1 processor, otherwise it would have been bigger news. You could not run existing applications for Windows on the Surface Pro X without first porting it to the ARM64 instruction set.
Right now the possibility for a high performance and energy efficient cloud is Microsoft’s first step. ARM chips running Azure’s servers can be the start. Moving into the retail line would follow with the Surface. They will probably be more of a niche market at first, since these chips will likely appear on premium products. Microsoft is not like DELL or HP in terms of market size in the personal computer space. It would probably make more sense for Microsoft’s ARM chip to be adopted by the likes of DELL to replace Intel. That will take some time and convincing though, since performance will be an important consideration along with reliability. The next iterations of the processor will determine that. In the meantime, here is an ARM to the future of computing.