Possible Future Tectonic Shifts In The Electronics Industry

First and foremost – Merry Christmas to all.

Yes, it’s 6:00 AM on Christmas Day. I’m up, and my silly puppies are up (they woke me to let them outside about an hour ago). Since everyone else is in bed, and I can’t open presents until they are up, I am writing.

Me and my assistant.

Historical Shifts

Electronics is an unstable business. New technologies, the new products they make possible, and changing consumer tastes all combine to create a business environment that is as stable as quicksand.

For example take the move from vacuum tubes to transistors. Tubes were large, power intensive, and fragile. Transistors were small, far less power intensive, and more robust, and so radios moved from the living room, into the pocket, while destroying a group of companies that weren’t willing or able to make the switch.

The switch to integrated circuits involved similar issues, as did the switch to microprocessors.

In each major technology group, there’s been tectonic shifts as well, for example the switch from 8 bit to 16 bit processors allowed new capabilities, while damaging companies which were either incapable or unwilling to make the shift.

Each major technology change meant that electronic devices changed. Mostly they became smaller, and faster. They also became more capable, and more complex, though sometimes the capabilities were artificially limited, like with DAT Tapes and DRM. DRM killed the DAT Tape format.

Computers went from Mainframes to Microcomputers, then to Minicomputers. In Minicomputers, Desktops birthed portables, then laptops, then notebooks, then tablets, then netbooks. For a long time Desktops reigned supreme, but then there was a huge shift towards notebooks, as notebooks gained in capabilities, and consumer acceptance. Again, each shift caused upheaval in the industry, with some companies dying, and some being born.

Other technologies merged – transistor radios merged with portable cassette players, and later with portable CD players, until both were replaced by MP3 players. Reel to Reel tapes were replaced by 8 tracks, 8 tracks by cassettes, cassettes by compact discs…

One are where there hasn’t been much change is personal computer operating systems. Microsoft Windows has owned the market for fifteen years, while computers it was installed on evolved madly, in ways that the designers of the first microcomputers probably did not foresee.

The Next Tectonic Shift – Reasoning

Predicting the next tectonic shift is like any other type of fortune telling. You look at what you can see, guess about what you can’t see, and pray like crazy for inspiration. It’s not much different from the haruspex carried out by Etruscan priests over 2000 years ago, but since I use the Internet rather than animal entrails, it’s a lot less messy.

First, what is a computer? For most people a computer is the thing that sits on their desk, or resides in their backpack. A microcomputer to be precise. But many people carry a second computer with them. It’s called a cell phone. It’s not recognized as a computer by the general public because it doesn’t have a keyboard, and the screen is small, but it’s a computer.

While ‘computers’ have been getting more powerful, so have cell phones. The first big shift in consumer perception of cell phones towards being considered computers, was with the release of the Apple IPhone. There were capable smart phones before the IPhone was released, Palm’s Treo being an excellent example, but they hadn’t gained a significant level of recognition by the general public. The IPhone did.

Suddenly consumers realized that these pocket sized devices could replace the desktops and notebooks they were using for a wide variety of functions, and proceeded to use them. The later IPod Touch music player was essentially an IPhone without the phone circuits. It had all of the rest of the capabilities, but while ostensibly just a music player, the IPod Touch started to encroach upon the lower end of the notebook market, the netbooks. It had advantages and disadvantages, but for some people the advantages (pocket sized, length of time between recharges, reliability) won.

Three years after, Apple introduced it’s IPad Tablet Computer. The IPad is based on the same base technology as the IPhone and IPod Touch, and can run most of the same software, however it has a variety of enhancements, that make it an excellent replacement for some notebook applications. In the first six months the IPad was available, Apple sold more than seven million units.

The reason that smart phones, like the Apple IPhone, and the competing line of Android Phones could be morphed into tablet computers was that the low wattage ARM Processor used in Phones (and a wide variety of other applications) had reached a stage of development, where it was nearly as powerful as the X86 and X86-64 processors used in microcomputers.

True, the ARM design had, and has, it’s limits. Any architecture does. But any architecture also offers it’s advantages. That’s why Apple migrated from the PowerPC architecture to X86/X86-64, because the advantages outweighed the disadvantages.

It is possible that microcomputers may migrate from the X86/X86-64 architecture to ARM. ARM offers certain advantages.

ARM chips are cheaper, and use less power then X86/X86-64 chips, being even less expensive than the AMD Geode and the Intel Atom. The problem is that until recently ARM chips have had a lot less processing power. However ARM Holdings has been working on more powerful designs, and the latest Cortex chips are almost as powerful as the X86/X86-64 chips. With multi-core designs now coming into production, ARM chips can now offer 80% of the abilities of the X86/X86-64 chips, at a far lower price, and use less power doing it.

This is the classic sign of a disruptive technology. Is ARM a disruptive technology? That we don’t know. Disruptive technologies are disruptive, because they don’t appear to be viable solutions when they first appear. The MP3 player is a good example – why would anyone want to listen to chintzy MP3 files, instead of listening to the clarity of a compact disc was the question that the compact disc player manufacturers asked, and the answer that they got was that no one would. The problem is that they asked the wrong question. What they should have asked was ‘What is the advantage of an MP3 player?’

The same question has to be asked about ARM. X86/X86-64 chips are still more powerful, and will remain so for years. What is the advantage of the ARM chip?

Microsoft recently asked that question. Whatever the answer they got, it appears that Microsoft is now frantically trying to port Windows 7 over to ARM. The estimate is that it will take two years. Two years, to port something as complex as Windows 7? Quite frankly it will be a miracle in my opinion if they manage. Of course they may have been working on the project for some time already. We don’t know. The official announcement is supposed to be coming at CSE 2011. Whether Microsoft is really working on an ARM version or not, the media is convinced that they are. In fact the rumors are already inspiring satire in the form of  A Christmas Techeye Bible Reading:

The Book of ARM


Yep. That’s how it starts…

Of course this could make ARM disruptive in a second way. Remember that just over a year ago I predicted that Microsoft would be bankrupt in five years? OK, now think about all those IPads. A certain percentage of them replaced netbooks, which would have been running Windows. A certain percentage of them replaced notebooks as well, which would have been running Windows. And of course Microsoft Office doesn’t run on the IPad. So each IPad sold is a lost sale opportunity for Microsoft.

Because of my physical condition I don’t get out much, but twice in December I was at a mall with an Apple store. Both of them were packed, and a constant stream of people walked out with new IPads (and yes, I have pictures – I may not go out much, but when I do, my Canon goes with me).

At the same time, there are a bunch of Android tablets on the market, and there are rumored to be a wide range of tablets in the works running Android, Ubuntu, QNX (Rim), and WebOS, all running on ARM. There are rumored to be some Atom based tablets as well, running Windows 7, but they will either suffer from battery life issues, or be weighed down by over sized batteries.

What this means, is that Microsoft needed to be working on an ARM port two or three years ago. Of course two or three years ago, ARM wasn’t a viable choice. That’s the problem with disruptive technologies, one day they aren’t a viable choice, the next they are, but for reasons that don’t appear to make sense. And when they do make sense, it’s too late.

The final question is, what is happening with the MIPS Architecture? MIPS is another option. It has some of features of X86/X86-64 and some of the features of ARM, while being neither. But there’s a lot of MIPS chips out there, in everything from supercomputers to game machines.

So Which Why Will The Shift Go?

We don’t know. We do know that X86/X86-64 isn’t suitable for most mobile devices, whereas ARM is, and MIPS may be. Both MIPS and ARM are less expensive then the X86/X86-64 family.

The only thing that we know, is that a shift is due. And it looks like Apple started it.


Wayne Borean

Sunday December 26, 2010


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