The Great Migration in Tech is Here
With Microsoft and Apple moving away from Intel, the long transition to ARM has begun.
In the beginning of October, Microsoft updated its most elegant computer yet, The Surface Pro X. They had introduced it roughly around a year back. At the time, it barely qualified as a legit work station as the software ecosystem was not ready and hence was scrupulously played down by most.
Even Microsoft’s Edge didn’t support their slickest computer yet. However, after a year, things have certainly gotten better; Microsoft has a working plan in place for making sure legacy(x86) apps run with an “emulation” layer while some well-known apps have added native support for Arm.
The Surface Pro X is a part of a bigger picture that Microsoft wants to paint. It underlines the trend that it is time for device manufacturers to initiate their transition to ARM . Needless to say, it might take some time before others jump on the bandwagon.
Earlier this year, Apple held an event especially for letting the world know that they are moving to ARM based processors for Macs and in November they introduced three of their entry-level Macs with ARM based M1 chip. This more or less confirms the industry-wide move away from Intel.
But, capable Arm chips have been around for a while; even powering Chromebooks. Given that Arm processors have been around for long enough, its interesting to know why the transition is happening now.
But Why Now
Over the years, Updates to Intel processors have been cliched and predictable in many ways. You hear statements like 10 percent faster and 12 percent less power consumption and so on. This trend has more or less been unchanged for a while.
Every device manufacturer has to improve on its products with each iteration. The most common improvement areas are design, power consumption, weight, etc. In most cases, they make subtle improvements across the board.
Making computers thinner, quieter and powerful at the same time has seemingly hit the wall with Intel processors.
The most important aspect of their computers is always the processor for which they solely depend on what comes out of the Intel Laboratories.
Laptops which are highly power-sensitive devices have been plagued with CPU throttling and other power consumption issues. These deep-rooted issues don’t seem to have a lasting solution with Intel based chips. As processors are getting better, so are apps and their power requirements which defers the possibility of a viable solution even further.
With the alleged peaking of Moore’s law, there’s a need for a breakthrough that gets the industry past such issues. Making computers thinner, quieter and powerful at the same time has seemingly hit the wall with Intel processors. Moving to Arm is one of those steps that promises a solution to these problems.
It is no secret that the ARM architecture is centered around energy efficiency; Most entry-level ARM powered computers don’t have a fan on board. There is no apparent loss of computing power even with the fan getting removed. This improves the battery life of laptops with gains previously not possible with Intel chips.
With the ARM chip, the numbers posted by Apple are over the roof both in terms of power efficiency and performance. This puts Microsoft in a tight spot. It would be difficult to pull off what Apple has done with its M1 Chip given that Apple has been making industry leading ARM processors for a long time.
In the PC world, the decision to migrate could not have been taken by any pc-manufacturer just in favour of ARM processors. Only Microsoft could have decided to migrate for only they have control over the ecosystem to do so.
The Great Transition
Transitioning to ARM is a monumental step in computing which is expensive and risky at the same time. Decisions like these are only taken when there are visible incremental gains in the foreseeable future.
In comparison to Microsoft, Apple finds itself in a better position to make a smoother transition. It has the experience of pull off something of this scale in the past when it transitioned from PowerPC to Intel. Apple showcased this by not introducing its M1 chip to its more serious machines, like the 16" MacBook Pro or the iMac.
They want to scale their transition from entry-level computers to the serious machines rather than doing it all at once and breaking things in the process. They’ve also built a special translation layer, Rosetta 2, which allows apps that haven’t been updated for the new processors to run anyway albeit an unnoticeable performance hit.
Needless to say, Apple provides a strong reference point to others in the industry. The story is a bit different on the windows side.
Windows on Arm
ARM plays much more different in the hands of pc-makers than Intel as they get more control over their products when using ARM. For example, Microsoft uses plain out of the box Intel chips in its Surface pro line while it uses its custom chip SQ2 in the Surface Pro X which it can customize to integrate LTE connectivity and lower pen input latency.
Not every PC manufacturer can afford to make their own custom silicon. For companies that can design their own silicon based on ARM architecture, they can compete in the long run on power battery life and other power and performance considerations. It also promises better integration, power efficiency and slicker devices in the future.
But, it is difficult to foresee many pc manufacturers coming up with their own ARM based Cpu’s for their computers. Some PC vendors like Lenovo make their own security chip but making a complete processor is a different ball game.
It would be interesting to see how Intel reacts to what has been happening given that it has released a powerful update to its 11th generation processors. Considering the scale of the migration, it would take its time to complete and reveal its true benefits. Consumers could benefit in the long run with faster computers at a better price albeit things breaking in the short term.