The comparison between ARM vs x86 have been on for the last decade. ARM tried to move into the server market and failed. And Intel, which carries most of the x86 burden, tried to move on cellphones and failed. The battle for tablets is ongoing, with ARM in the lead, and the battle for notebooks continues with Intel mainly in the lead.
Up until recently, Qualcomm has primarily been the standard-bearer for ARM. But that will change if Nvidia’s attempt to buy ARM is successful which is likely. Nvidia seems to be more interested in servers than smartphones at the moment. Still, they do have their eye on PCs, where conflict with Qualcomm is likely to emerge.
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ARM vs x86
However, this is platform war, and ARM is currently more connected with developers than x86. This fight is primarily a battle between business plans, with ARM heavy on licensing and x86 more focused on sales. Let’s talk about how this battle is likely to play out, because the outcome is far from decided and the winner may end up with all of the chips.
ARM vs x86 Architecture
The market likes diversity in vendors, but it isn’t a fan of diversity in architectures because that creates selection risk. OEMs and IT organizations spend, collectively, billions of dollars on technology. And the more viable types of technology in the market, the more likely one of these large influential entities are likely to guess wrong.
Ideally, and this was initially built into the x86 plan, they’d like two redundant vendors who are plug-compatible. So, they can switch between vendors later in the manufacturing process and mitigate supply risk.
ARM vs x86 Performance
The x86 at one time had a massive advantage because when IBM originally went to Intel for their x86 technology. They demanded that Intel license to someone else, which turned out to be AMD, to assure competitive pricing and backup in the face of a chip shortage.
However, Intel negotiated socket compatibility away to lock up the platforms they built, not realizing this would weaken x86 strategically. So, Intel moved away from what the market wanted to prevent AMD from gaining more market share.
But by doing so, they strategically weakened x86. Or, put a different way, just as the computing market was moving to more of a licensing and compatibility model, Intel went in the opposite direction, putting its technology and the company at higher risk.
What is ARM Processor?
In a way, just as Microsoft’s mistakes in the 1990s largely drove Linux, ARM has increasingly been driven by Intel’s mistakes in that same decade. Microsoft responded to their threat by becoming more open and closing the gap concerning Linux. And it has even embraced that competing platform.
Redmond’s defense shifted from one of power and force to one of support and advancement, and today Linux is both viable and not much of a threat to Microsoft. The market likes the open-source collaborative model, which surrounds ARM. And it likes the broader choice of ARM vendors even though Qualcomm is arguably dominant, much like Intel is in x86.
This structure allows the ARM ecosystem to act more like a cohesive unit against x86. Intel, AMD, and VIA rarely act in concert and are more likely to ignore or position themselves against each other than they are the broader threat. It often seems that the x86 faction infighting keeps them all less focused on the more significant threat from ARM.
In terms of the balance of power, the two sides are relatively weighted, with x86 dominant in PCs and servers, which tend to carry reasonably high margins. And ARM dominant in cellphones, tablets, and more likely be embedded in appliances and IoT devices.
This competitive dynamic gives ARM an impressive lead in the higher-volume categories and an advantage in economies of scale. But x86’s lock on PCs and servers is far harder to break, which offsets somewhat a potential cost advantage that would assure ARM’s eventual victory.