Remaking The Playing Field

Is the Imagination-MIPS deal really just a standalone purchase, or is there much more lurking under the surface?


Just a week ago the battle lines looked very well defined. ARM was fighting Intel on power, and Intel was fighting ARM on performance.

One week later, ARM has cemented a deal with AMD, which will use its cores in future processors running Microsoft software. Imagination Technologies is buying MIPS, which presumably it will use to go after both ARM and Intel. And Intel has a stake in Imagination.

Microsoft, meanwhile, is developing its own tablets using ARM cores. For all the complaints by industry analysts about the inappropriate pricing of Windows RC, they never considered that Microsoft is going to OEM its own devices bundled with RC and some productivity apps. Most likely that will include convertible notebook/tablets, as well, where those kinds of apps will be big sellers. And with Microsoft making the primary software, there’s plenty of elasticity in that equation—and much more to sell at its new crop of Microsoft stores than just Xboxes, mice, and Windows and Office.

And don’t be surprised if the next big sale is Microsoft buying Imagination. While RC will run on ARM, it also will run on MIPS. So will the regular version of Windows and Linux. And just to appease the regulators, so will Android. Microsoft could easily offer a full breadth of devices ranging from ARM phones and MIPS-based tablets to Intel-based PCs. For all the talk about Microsoft vs. Google, the real target may be Apple.

What looked like a two-horse race is suddenly a crowded field of very viable contenders. And for all the talk about the computing market falling off a cliff, there seems to be plenty of life in both the data center/cloud/enterprise market, as well as the notebook and tablet markets. Moreover, as the Internet of Things gets rolling, there will be plenty of opportunity for power-saving processors just about everywhere, from your toaster to your car to inside your body.

What’s different, though, is the focus on power consumption. From the data center to the tablet and smart phone, power has become the dominant issue over performance and area. In the data center, the savings can be measured with lots of zeroes. In the tablet and smartphone, it can be measured in time between charges. And for software developers, it can be the difference between who’s successful in a particular market and who isn’t.

There are no guarantees anyone will make this work, of course. Building an ecosystem takes years. But many of these ecosystems are already well established, and they’re in dire need of a jolt. Lots of extra cash lying around could provide the spark. But execution on this kind of scenario isn’t easy, and the competition doesn’t stand still.

Nevertheless, it’s amazing how much can change in a week. And that may be just the beginning.

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