Hacking Bangkok Blog

Tech and Living in Thailand's City of Angels

The Hacking Bangkok blog covers I.T. and technology in general, and my experiences working and living in the Kingdom of Thailand. Bangkok has a very long Thai name, which starts with Krung thep - City of Angels.
Bangkok sunset from my bedroom balcony

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Inevitability Of X86/X64 Smartphones

I've been watching the slow drip of news and details about Intel's upcoming low power-consumption mobile CPU, codenamed "Moorestown" more closely lately. Granted, details are few and Intel is still focused on promoting their Atom processor.

But in a previous post (Rise of Smarter Smartphones... ) I talked about the near-future of smartphones, and how they're morphing into general purpose mobile computers. I've also read the ongoing debate between people who think ARM (a RISC-architecture mobile CPU used in iPhones, T-Mobile's G1, the HTC Touch Diamond, and most other smartphones) is the future of mobile computers, and those who think the x86 architecture will eventually triumph.

Well, while I think ARM is great - my Touch Diamond runs on a 528 MHz ARM chip - the history of alternative architectures for widespread computing is pretty grim. The DEC/Compaq Alpha chip (also a RISC processor) was the first 64-bit CPU to run Windows. Most people never even knew there *was* 64-bit windows on non-x86. And the once-vaunted Alpha chip? It's design was eventually sold off to Intel, who put it to pasture as soon as they could.

The Alpha, Sun's Ultrasparc, Intel's own Itanium, the Motorola/IBM/Apple 68000-series, and so on are all now either dead or niche products. If Intel can't get people to adopt a new architecture - and they tried, but AMD read the tea-leaves right and offered 64-bit x86 - then it's hard to see how ARM will fare much better, when the two architectures start to compete in the same space. And that's not yet - but by 2011 or 2012, we're going to see the high-end smartphone market moving en masse to x86. Count on it.

Sun's Ultrasparc, and the Alpha chip both survived fine - until x86 started showing up in servers and competing with them. For now, Intel's Atom is still too power-hungry to compete with battery-loving ARM chips, but Moorestown allegedly draws 1/10th of Atom's wattage when "idle." If it's even close in power consumption to ARM chips (comparing watts/flop, or whatever - doing equivalent tasks) then building x86 smartphones becomes a no-brainer. OEMs won't have to re-write device-drivers, and software companies won't have to worry about hardware incompatibilies. Apple's OS X already runs on X86, so creating an x86 iPhone would be pretty straightforward. Ditto for Android (based on Linux).

Plus, we've already seen some interesting near-smartphone x86-based phone/devices... these are the "Newtons" of the x86 smartphone market - not ready for prime-time, but a demo of the concept.

So - that's my stake in the ground. Whether it's Moorestown, or some AMD mobile-ized chip, or the next-gen chip beyond those, eventually the x86/64 architecture is gonna be in your hands.