CPU Diversification: Ubuntu's Gain, Microsoft's Loss
The drive to create faster, cooler, and more energy-efficient CPUs has led to a diversification of processor architectures recently, with the venerable x86 facing competition it hasn’t seen in years. If this trend continues, it will assure Ubuntu and other Linux distributions a substantial advantage over Microsoft, which so far has announced no plans to build Windows for chipsets that are not x86-compatible.
Apple’s decision in 2006 to ditch the PowerPC architecture in favor of Intel CPUs meant that Windows could run on virtually every consumer-class desktop and laptop computer in the world–a goal towards which Microsoft had worked for more than a decade, as it promoted the x86 architecture over its alternatives.
But that success was short-lived, as ARM chips, like Qualcomm’s Snapdragon (which was recently previewed in netbooks at Computex in Taiwan), stand poised to attack the market share of x86 CPUs.
Dealing with diversity
While the desktop version of Windows supports only x86-compatible machines, the Linux kernel can be compiled for nineteen different architectures, according to Wikipedia. This leaves Microsoft (and Apple, which also supports only x86 hardware) at a disadvantage as the consumer-class CPU market begins once again to diversify.
If ARM and other alternative architectures prove popular among PC vendors over the long term, Windows and OS X will be locked out of a substantial portion of the market, especially on netbooks and other portable devices. In the absence of proprietary platforms, the dominance of Ubuntu and other Linux distributions is all but assured.
Granted, adapting to a more diverse range of CPUs is no trivial task for Ubuntu, which currently has official support for only x86 machines, although unofficial builds for other architectures are available. While most of the work required to port Ubuntu to alternative processors has already been completed upstream, Canonical would still be responsible for maintaining repositories for new architectures, which cannot be implemented overnight and which would require the investment of more resources.
Nonetheless, the task of officially porting Ubuntu to run on new architectures would almost certainly be much quicker and smoother than the mountain of work that Microsoft and Apple would face to do the same for Windows or OS X. This reality does not bode well for Microsoft in particular, which is hoping to use Windows 7 to solidify its growing dominance of the low-end laptop (i.e., netbook) market. No matter how much lighter, prettier or cheaper Windows 7 is than Vista, it’s useless in an increasingly significant portion of the netbook market until it runs on ARM and other alternative CPUs.
Microsoft may well decide to diversify the machines that it supports. But unless it does, Ubuntu has a lot to gain as the x86 processor loses its monopoly on the desktop and laptop market.