Last man standing
That leaves Intel as the last man standing -- the last chip maker with its fortunes staked to the x86 processor architecture.
It’s not a bad place to be left standing, really. The market is still the second largest in non-memory semiconductors with annual unit sales measured in hundreds of millions. Its 80 percent-plus share of it makes Intel easily the largest semiconductor company in the world. Unlike the largest non-memory market of smartphone processors, it has average selling prices that range from about $100 for client CPUs to more than $1,000 for server chips.
But those prices are eroding like bad California beachfront property. ARM is on the rise with a penny- and power-pinching architecture that enables chips for clients and servers both selling in the low-rent neighborhood of about $20. Soon they will even include 64-bit varieties with performance nearly on par with members of the x86 family.
At this inflection point when we are watching a slow motion shift of monarchies from x86 to ARM, it’s worth remembering we are also watching the decline of microprocessor architecture. Increasingly system design is all about the software and the user experience.
I asked a long time Lenovo and former IBM tech executive about the big semiconductor design issues for mobile systems. There really aren’t many, he responded. The system issues are all about sensors, industrial design and software, he said.
Once upon a time, engineers made their livings designing the nuances of CPU pipelines the way great architects made skyscrapers and suspension bridges. I attended industry conferences where they explained the refinements of their works amid great competitive pressures. They were feted like Rembrandts and Da Vincis.
Those days are as much part of the technology past as the giant mainframe cabinets and consoles with their built-in ash trays in the Computer History Museum just down the street from the headquarters of Intel Corp.
But that doesn’t mean processors, cores and SoCs are dead. Far from it.
Brilliant engineers will be needed for as far as anyone can see into the horizon to design the chips that drive tomorrow’s personal and cloud computers. But microprocessor architecture and the x86 specifically no longer reign supreme.
So the x86 is dead. Long live the x86.
The Sage mainframe console sports a built-in ash tray (lower left).