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.
Related links and articles:
Samsung reveals eight-core mobile processor
Nvidia launches 'Wayne' processor with LTE
Qualcomm samples next-gen Snapdragon processors
Broadcom takes two ARM architecture licenses
Calxeda roadmap leads to 64-bit CPU in 2014
ARM signs 64-bit deal with Cavium
AMCC demos 64-bit ARM server chip