Does ARM Have the Potential to Rediversify the PC Market?
If a world where all computer hardware is identical is a boring one, that’s arguably been the direction OEMs have headed in recent years. But with momentum behind ARM architectures rapidly increasing, could this era of homogeneity be coming to an end? And did it even exist in the first place? Here are some thoughts.
First, however, let me add some precision to what would otherwise be a hugely unfair generalization. When I say hardware has tended to become more homogeneous, I have in mind mostly consumer PCs and servers. Mobile and tablet computing remains a different ecosystem — at least for the time being.
And I don’t mean chipsets have become identical or any one manufacturer has enjoyed a monopoly. That certainly hasn’t been the case. But components have become more functionally equivalent, with one as good as another from the point of view of software and the end user.
Our Hardware, Ourselves
The most obvious example of the homogenization trend is the x86 architecture, which (along with its x86-64 descendant) has faced very little real competition in the PC market for a long time — especially since Apple jumped ship for Intel in 2006. In addition, nuances within the x86 family are increasingly irrelevant as well, as 32-bit chips are disappearing and along with them the subarchitectural differences that once distinguished, for example, i586 and i686 systems.
Other components also tend to be pretty similar these days. Unless you do serious audio or video work, you probably use integrated graphics and sound chips that offer essentially the same sets of features, regardless of what company manufactured them. Software developers can assume relatively safely now that their users will have accelerated video, six-channel audio and so on.
Wireless cards are also largely the same. Although 802.11n devices have yet to saturate the market, realistically speaking the differences between 11n and 11g speeds don’t matter in most situations, since even the latter can transfer boatloads more data per second than most broadband Internet connections deliver. And beyond the difference in speed between these two classes of devices, there’s little else that separates them.
This trend toward homogeneity is only natural, since it simplifies the lives of both OEMs and software developers. It also makes marketing easier, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing for end users.
ARMing for the Future
Despite the incentives that different parties share for keeping components homogeneous, however, the increasing visibility of ARM architectures on the peripheries of the PC world stands poised to rediversify hardware markets that have lost most of their flavor over the last 10 years.
It’s no secret that ARM has become the backbone of the mobile market, which is becoming increasingly indistinct from the traditional PC world. Meanwhile, while ARM chips on servers have not yet materialized, a lot of major players (such as Canonical, as we wrote recently) have placed significant stock in that phenomenon occurring in the not-too-distant future.
If ARM penetrates these markets so deeply, and if major OS platforms become compatible with ARM subarchitectures, there will be little to stop ARM from disrupting the x86 monopoly in the PC world as well.
And if that happens, it could mean the rediversification not only of the CPU. Precisely because PC components have become so heavily integrated and homogeneous, more processor choices might also lead to a larger number of chipsets. Indeed, now that the x86 monopoly has advanced to the point that even video is integrated within the CPU, switching to ARM would mean reinventing graphics solutions as well.
Admittedly, this vision of a heterogeneous PC world is a highly speculative one, and there are a lot of factors that favor the preservation of the status quo. Nonetheless, although it sometimes may be hard to remember PC hardware was once radically diverse, there’s no guarantee that situation couldn’t become the standard all over again, especially if the next generation of ARM chips enter the fray.