Interesting times ahead in the mobile hardware world. Today, most mobile, wireless and embedded devices are based on a chip with a processor design from ARM. Although many companies such as Texas Instruments, Marvell, STM, VLSI etc. design and produce chips for small devices, most are based on a CPU core licensed from ARM. On the desktop and PC world, things are equally clear with Intel’s x86 design dominating. With both architectures now targeting powerful mobile devices, these two worlds are about to collide.
The ARM design was initially targeted at ultra low power embedded devices. As technology evolved so did ARM’s design of their processors and it is estimated that an ARM processor core is used in 95% of mid- to high-end mobile phones today. The current ARM-11 high-end platform for example is used in devices such as Nokia’s N-series phones like the N95 and in Internet tables like for example the Nokia N800 and N810. The ARM-11 platform is the result of a bottom-up approach, as it has evolved from earlier platforms for simpler devices. According to ARM’s web page all phones of mobile giants such as Sony Ericcson, Nokia, LG, Samsung, etc. are ARM powered. This shows how flexible the ARM architecture is today since requirements range from voice telephony with ultra ultra low power requirements to full blown multimedia devices. Today, a lot of operating systems support the ARM architecture. Examples are fully embedded operating systems of low-end to mid-range mobile devices to operating systems for smartphones like Symbian, Windows Mobile and these days also Linux. Linux is about to become popular in the mobile device world e.g. with Nokia’s Internet tablets and in the future with devices built around Google’s Android OS. The advantage of using Linux on mobile devices is the wide variety of available software from the Linux desktop world, which often only has to be slightly adapted and recompiled for the ARM processor architecture.
On the other end there is Intel who seems to be keen to enter the mobile space with it’s x86 processor line. A couple of years ago they tried to get a foothold in the mobile space by licensing ARM technology and building a product line around that. However, they have since abandoned this approach and are now tuning their x86 architecture for low power consumption and ultra small packaging. This is kind of a top-down approach, i.e. streamlining a desktop processor architecture for smaller devices. Their advantage: No or few adaptations are required to run applications written for the desktop. Adaptation is usually only required for smaller screen sizes, mobile device specific desktop environments and less disk and memory capacity. In theory, Microsoft Windows can also run on x86 based devices but in practice it is too resource hungry. On the downside, Intel’s platform for Mobile Internet Devices (MIDs) and Ultra Mobile PCs (UMPCs) does not have a native cellular interface like ARM has. Thus, device manufacturers have to look around for additional chips in case they want to put 3G connectivity into their devices. Intel, however, will surely use their mobile platform to combine it with their own WiMAX chips.
For the moment, Intel and ARM have not made contact yet. Intel’s design is still too heavy for most mobile devices but they have gained a lot of ground lately. ARMs architecture on the other hand keeps pushing forward with increased processing power and additional functionality embedded in the main chip. Give it another 12-18 months, however, and I think they will have similar offers for mobile devices. Expect heavy architecture competition.