ARM’s Feeling Lucky; Netbook ‘Battle’ Just Beginning?

Thus far it seems that netbooks with Windows XP and Intel Atom processors have been the most successful, leaving little room for other players. There have been those who doubt ARM’s longevity in this particular market, so we decided to interview some of the folks at ARM. They told OSNews that the company is confident about its current and future mobile markets, and Linux, which will soon be on various ARM-powered netbooks, is one of the reasons why.

Price Issue

We talk with Bob Morris, ARM’s Director of Mobile Computing. He says that there’s less and less margin revenue for Intel and Microsoft as the price of netbooks goes further and further down; one can only make so much profit from a device that costs so much to build being sold for around $250-$390. Also, many people don’t want a mobile device to be a productivity replacement, and thus many of these devices don’t require what’s needed to run programs such as Microsoft Office and other productivity suites.

This is where ARM steps in. The attractive netbook sub-$200 price point has basically been an imaginary line always on the horizon, but ARM believes it’ll finally be able to reach this market in mass. Morris said that there even may be ARM-powered netbooks soon for $110-$120, and if that’s the case, I’m definitely in. These sub-$200 netbooks would become more of an item bought on impulse — an almost disposable commodity instead of a well thought-out investment.

Different, Mobile-Friendly Chips

Morris says that the biggest difference between Intel and ARM chips is SOC: system on chip. On ARM-designed chips, many of the computer’s components are on the chip, including the CPU, GPU, MPEG4 controllers, USB controllers, various radios (WAN, WLAN, GPS, etcetera), and many more components, eliminating the need of larger motherboards. Jeff Chu, Segment Marketing Manager at ARM, mentions an entire computer being on a 3×3-inch board using SOC technology. Intel’s Atom is still essentially just the CPU meaning that the computer still needs various other components on the motherboard, not helping in smaller form factor or the power issues.

The combined features of low power consumption and fanless cooling also result in the highly desired long battery life. Phones can already last for days on end without needing a recharge, and it seems that future ARM-powered netbooks are headed in that direction also.

Morris says that ARM’s Cortex A8 design and Intel’s Atom are where traditional PC processors were about five years ago. “Performance that’s needed from five years ago is perfect for email and web,” he continued. The “sweet spot” is that “people value mobility over a screaming gaming system. This is where the Cortex A8 is right now. We think this is where [ARM-powered netbooks are] going to take off. There’s a lot to be played out in the A8 for a number of years.” He also mentions the upcoming Cortex A9 chip to be coming in 2010 and that these will begin sporting multicores. Now, multicores is something that I’ve been waiting for in a netbook.

Operating Systems for ARM

Ubuntu has already been a big supporter of the ARM architecture and now will have Jaunty Jackalope ready for these processors come April 23.

Along with Ubuntu, some other OS “main pillars” for the ARM architecture, as Morris calls them, are Android, which we’ll most likely be seeing in commercially-produced netbooks soon, Movial’s OS ALIP, Hyperspace, and Xandros.

Morris says that “what’s good about Xandros and Android is that they have store fronts.” An OEM builds a computer with a customized OS, the customer has a good experience, and the customer will then come back to the same OEM. “Xandros has a store front to let OEMs customize.”

Contrary to some beliefs, ARM and Microsoft aren’t going head-to-head against one another. Morris mentioned that ARM has been “working very closely with Microsoft, all tied in with Web 2.0 and cloud computing. Hopefully you might see some things in the future” dealing with these new technologies. They also work very closely with the Windows Embedded and Windows Mobile business units, of course.

Jeff Chu mentions ARM’s vast unit shipments, mostly due to their history with Linux.

We’re on a run rate of 1.2-1.3 billion units a quarter. ARM towers above the others with Linux because it’s in the small systems. We don’t think a lot about systems with Linux on them. You wouldn’t believe what Linux is in. There’s an entire ecosystem that you don’t think about.

In relation to Google, Morris predicts that varied Android-based netbooks will begin to appear soon with differentiated ways of putting it on a netbook, and then “Google’s going to come back with the proper way of doing it” in 2010.

Upcoming Gadgets

I was emailed a keynote that described some juicy-looking prototypes that we’ve already seen, and we’ve seen a few others that are pretty neat, too. Morris says that there are four or five ARM netbooks in queue to be released in time for Christmas 2009, and then there’ll be a “big push” come 2010.

Linux to Make a Comeback on Netbooks

It sounds like ARM’s sitting pretty comfortably with the current market of diverse cell phones and dozens of other types of devices, and they’re also quite happy with their upcoming future of netbooks. If you ask me, the slew of ARM-powered netbooks in 2010 will finally show the world how to market Linux right on a netbook. I’m definitely looking forward to the Android and Ubuntu devices, personally, and have high expectations for ARM-based Linux netbooks as a whole.


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