What happens when everyone is designing their SoCs with cores licensed from ARM? Where's the differentiation?
However, it must not be forgotten that it takes considerably more resources – time and people – to develop an ARM-compatible processor core then to successfully embed that core and derivatives in a system-chip that wins market share. But for those few companies that do have the vision, resources and the engineering management to start early enough so that they can hit the market with the right chip at the right time, it is a winning proposition.
It is impossible to know how much of Apple's and Qualcomm's success with application processors can be attributed to the fact that they now roll their own processor cores. But successful they are. It could be something as simple as this--only the big companies have the resources to justify an ARM architectural license and big companies usually win in the end.
But even if it is something that simple, does consolidation in the semiconductor industry mean that there will be fewer, bigger companies and their need to differentiate themselves from each other will favor the use of ARM architectural licenses over individual core licenses going forward? Such consolidation may even favor the adoption of newer architectures or re-engineered combinations such as MIPS-PowerVR from Imagination.
The answer to the question probably depends on whether you believe in a consolidating or steady-state chip universe. Those in the latter camp will argue that while consolidation may be going on at the top of the industry there is a continual flow of applications and startups emerging to serve those applications, so that the total headcount remains roughly static. Certainly for a startup company licensing an ARM core to get to market quickly would be one cost-efficient way to go – so long as that startup is not trying to go head-to-head against an entrenched giant.
One other thing that will change the dynamic is that Moore's Law is running out of steam as it becomes more expensive to progress to the next node. It is arguable that as companies are going to spend longer on each given node and are therefore looking to make more differentiation in design as the benefits of cost and power reduction from migrating nodes are more expensive to achieve and less easy to justify.
More differentiation in design may suggest to more enlightened and better endowed companies that an ARM architectural license gives a greater chance of success.
It would be a simplistic counter argument to say that in modern equipment, gadgets and systems it's the software that makes the difference. It's true that at compile time the software doesn't much care whether the ARM processor it is going to run on is the most elegant of proprietary designs or the most widely used vanilla building block. But it is also true that it is processors designed and optimized for a particular application and set of use cases that have the best chance of turning in best-in-class power and performance measurements.
Finally it must also be recognized that the business dynamics around licensing processor intellectual property are different in different industry sectors. So while we may have seen the emergence of architectural licensees and custom ARM processors to address the mobile market and we may yet see the same for server and networking infrastructure that is not the case in the industrial or automotive sectors. There, where microcontrollers are often the hardware of choice and flexibility, peripheral cores and a great chunk of software are the differentiators, I don't see much temptation for ARM licensees to do anything but keep taking the cores.
I think the ARM family will continue and grow, as expected it is moving into the 64 bit world and will continue to multiply the cores and increase processor clock speed. On a slightly related note: Digital Equipment Corporation was a major player for quite awhile but fell prey to a number of factors (mostly self inflicted IMHO). DEC got complacent, grew too many layers (adding cost), ignored the PC market for too long, was too slow to react to market forces/needs; these are some of the reasons why DEC is not more. I am sure there were other reasons as well, I never worked at DEC but loved the company anyway (had a lot of friends that worked there). It was sad to see them fail, but the lessons learned can and should be applied to ARM and any other company. I like the comment about competing with yourself, that makes a lot of sense!
For better or worse, the computer sector became a commodity. From high-performance down to tablets and phones and embedded systems there just isn't a lot of space for hardware differentiation. Linux, contrary to what some people think, has taken over under the covers---partly because of price but mostly because it is flexible and simple both in the technical and business sense.
In order to compete Intel will have to figure out a way to commoditize it's products, by making low-power, highly integrated and inexpensive SoCs. They certainly aren't there now---if you want to argue that point, please show me an Intel platform capable of running Linux that sells for $30. ARM can do that, but Intel currently can't yet.
I would say, yes.
Dual-core is a must as the time progresses(less than a year, I guess).
The users of the mobile are performing more work on the device than ever before and hence having a 2 core processor in the device is very lucrative for the responsiveness of the device to keep the user keep using the device(mobile, pads, ...) for a longer time in day.
Peter : a thoughtful discussion, perhaps you would like to comment / write more in future about following scenarios :
1. Apple & QC depending less and less on ARM / "Imagination" and doing much more themselves from ground up in order to distinguish
2. The second tier ( nVidia / Samsung ) shifting their strategy ( i,e. playing the more cores game to going the same way as Apple / QC ie, improving on ARM design )
3. Would Intel ever develop a credible low - power alternative to ARM and gain marketshare ( even if at a lower margin than x86 monopoly )
4. How about up and comers like Media Tek / Hua wei ? which of above 3 scenarios would suit them best?
Excellent points all. I am with Danny.
These are reasons why:
1)Qualcomm is buying display companies.
2)The IP battle is moving to PowerVR versus Mali versus Others
3) What else is on-board the SoC including the modem counts for a lot.
4) 3-D packaging and TSVs for maximizing memory bandwidth and minimizing power consumption of that bandwidth is high priority.
Very good synthesis of the CPU core market, Peter! I really appreciate.
I am just surprised by the comments made: many high level position about the evolution of the CPU market, the SC industry and so on... but nobody has simply noticed that a great % of ARM success is due to the solid ECOSYSTEM that the company has built, year after year.
Building such an ECOSYSTEM will be pretty difficult to duplicate, would take 10+ years... and is probably the reason why ARM will stay the leader, and consolidate.