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.
There was a time when the number of personal computer companies numbered in the dozens - maybe hundreds. Some ran CP/M, CP/M86, AppleDOS, Pick MS-DOS, PC-DOS and a variety of customized versions of many of OS's.
Since that time, there has been so much consolidation and standardization that the difference between PC offerings is more about marketing than about actual differentiation. The same will happen in the ARM market. In the end, there will be more ARM providers than thee are PC providers because there are actual market differences to build off of, it none the less, ARM will follow a very similar path as did the PC industry.
Having an ARM architectural license has its advantages, but is by no means a guarantee of success. For example, Marvell doesn't seem to be doing so well these days compared to Qualcomm, Samsung, and nVidia despite having their XScale variant of ARM architecture since 2006. Marvell obtained XScale from Intel, who didn't have much success with ARM despite having an architecture license. And where did Intel get that license? From DEC, where it was called StrongARM. Anyone see a pattern here? :-)
I notice the article doesn't mention Microsoft, who obtained an ARM architectural license in July 2010. It's early to make an assessment, but who knows if they'll ever be able to make use of it. According to Wikipedia, the WART Surface uses nVidia Tegra 3.
As has always been the case, the important thing for a manufacturer is to come out with the right product at the right time, and be able to manufacture the right number to meet the window's demand. Designing in a new SoC is a huge risk factor whether you do it yourself or someone does it for you, but that's "tech biz".
Escalating down Moore’s law thru valley of CMOS low cost curve, & back up again to Finfet and what comes after? ARM royalties are dampening just like industry has dampened running from commercial industrial art smack into an applied science.
ARM will do what ARM does, to license, too see what sticks. Some within community call this over licensing. Where an architectural license offers spring board to differentiated avoiding placed into parity. And if done well, can hold and migrate a producer base. This is not core of memory, ostorage controller or M2M network.
Some would also caution anointing on some designs parlayed by ARM; given the design economics of licensee design fabrication, or specific system or IP reference.
ARM does pick from time to time and incumbent architectural licensee’s who can predict too stay ahead of their game, can stay ahead in the game. Often this takes a focus on unique and differentiated segments. Always access and stability in supply whether foundry or captive is requisite.
ARM exponential strategy is to drive licensing into developing Asia and East European markets. Prior to this strategy ARM attempted Intel head to head and got wacked. A15 brought in base holders for smart phone and gained ground in tablet. ARM claiming ability to displace 25% Intel share in notebook lost on no product before the claim. ARM server makes first base. First gen open integration smart TV, outside vertically integrated consumer electronics firm with ARM license, Intel wins on Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge end of run stocks priced below cost.
Finally there is the issue of ARM Intel-lectual insurance. Want to be ahead of ARM platform initiatives that are head-to-head with Intel, fickle ARM, requires first 1st mover advantage. To be smart and crafty with a superior design and customer reference that an architectural license still provides as the spring board to somewhere unique.
In my opinion, one reason why ARM has been and will continue to be successful is the cost saving on development of software support tools, such as toolchain, IDE etc. With so many open source tools available for ARM core, this is going to be a significant factor in making a decision to go for designing your own core. Also, out of school, CS and EE kids these days are familiar with ARM software tools, so better trained manpower is availble in the market. With a brand new core, you have to spend time, effort and money to introduce it to university programs to gather a critical mass of engineers who'd prefer it in their design. That, or a killer device, which completely outclasses an ARM core in performance and efficiency to displace these advantages of using ARM core.
Good discussion of the issues, Peter.
What I keep hearing is that ARM is putting out so many new cores and architectures like big.little so rapidly, there is little need or opportunity to differentiate with a custom core.
That said I am sure top tier chip designers like Broadcom can find ways to create value added SoCs with features that may require or benefit with a little tinkering at the processor core level.
Meanwhile, it's an interesting question of where ARM will go next in search for its own growth beyond processor and graphics cores. RF (starting in IoT) as East suggested in his interview with Junko? Or...?