The core of the computer industry, laptops and desktops, is on the brink of revolution with Intel and Microsoft set to lose their long-term stranglehold for three main reasons:
- Netbook sales are exploding and eating into the laptop and desktop markets.
- Ever more users are operating "in the cloud" where the CPU architecture and OS are irrelevant.
- Demand has shifted with users now wanting small solid-state fanless computers with long battery lives.
Sales of netbooks rose from only 0.4M in 2007 to 11.4M in 2008 and 35M in 2009 with projected sales of 139M in 2013. By the end of 2008, notebook sales had overtaken desktop sales for the first time in history. The tremendous growth in netbook sales was precipitated by the global financial climate making cheaper devices more alluring for cash-strapped consumers.
Google are desperately trying to get a piece of the action with their Chrome OS, an operating system designed around their Chrome web browser specifically for the new breed of users living in the cloud. Based upon Linux, this free software has the ultimate potential to destroy the profit margins that Microsoft depend upon. Microsoft have already lost 32% of the worldwide netbook market to Linux since 2007. Operating systems like Chrome OS are agnostic with respect to CPU architecture, completely removing the advantage of legacy that Intel rely upon.
Demand for fanless ultra-portable devices with the horse-power to display HD video has pushed power consumption to top priority. Power consumption has always been the achilles heel of the x86 architecture. Back in early 1996, Intel's fastest CPU, a 166MHz Pentium, was trumped by the 200MHz StrongARM but the far lower power consumption of the technologically-superior StrongARM was irrelevant in the context of desktop machines and Intel's legacy won over all markets except the (billion units per year) mobile phone market where ARM gained 70% market share. Today, netbook motherboards using Intel's fastest Core i7-920XM are competing against single-chip computers with ARM cores that are 10× smaller and 10× more power efficient. Consequently, netbooks built from ARM technology like the nVidia Tegra can perform the same challenging tasks without a fan and with far longer battery lives than Intel's best offerings. Exactly what consumers want.
Intel have been trying to compete with ARM for over a decade. They acquired StrongARM technology from Compaq who had acquired it from DEC and built the Intel XScale but succeeded in little more than increasing power consumption ten fold. The XScale has since joined the Itanium and Larrabee in the Intel hall of shame.
Windows CE and Windows Mobile already run on the ARM architecture and allow .NET applications to be run on ARM netbooks using the .NET Micro Framework. However, lack of multicore support in the .NET Micro Framework may lead to the use of alternatives like HLVM on Linux instead.
Perhaps by 2012 I really will be writing this blog not from a 2GHz 8-core Intel desktop but from a 2GHz quadcore ARM Cortex-A9MP with nVidia GPU netbook from the beach. I hope so!