For nearly a decade, supporters of the chip technology that powers cell phones vowed to shake up the computer market. For the most part, they made little progress.
Now that seems to be finally changing, in a possible power shift over the direction of the computer industry.
The change is being driven by Apple and Amazon, two tech giants reducing their reliance on the Intel chip technology that has long powered most personal computers and larger server systems. Instead, the companies are increasingly leaning on their own homegrown chips designed using technology that Arm, the UK company, licenses smartphones and other consumer products.
Apple fired a salvo last month when it introduced new models of Mac computers that used their own Arm-based chips for the first time. In June, Amazon’s cloud computing company began to market a new computing service based on its own Arm-based chips, telling customers that the service was both faster and cheaper at one-fifth than the Intel-based offering.
On Tuesday, Amazon unveiled a second computer service for companies based on the same chips. It also discussed profits from users of the first service launched in June, such as Snap, maker of the Snapchat messaging app. Amazon added that Twitter plans to use the technology as part of a broader relationship between the companies.
“The bigger the customer, the more excited they are,” said Peter DeSantis, who oversees the computing infrastructure for Amazon Web Services.
The actions of Apple and Amazon are causing ripple effects in the $ 400 billion semiconductor industry. Their moves suggest that important decisions in chips may increasingly shift from silicon suppliers, where power has long existed, to chip users with the resources to make their own components. For computer users, the movements can ultimately result in more technological choices, faster computer speeds and lower costs.
“Everyone’s like, wow, Apple is all in; Amazon and others are on board,” said Keith Kressin, senior vice president at Qualcomm, a major supplier of Arm-based chips. “This is really going to happen.”
Becoming a dominant force in the computing world in the 1990s, Intel emerged as the largest supplier of processors for PCs, and later took advantage of large-scale manufacturing to create cheaper chips for servers. But the company did not make chips for smartphones, which became extremely popular from 2007 onwards.
Enter Arm. The 30-year-old company, which Nvidia recently agreed to buy from SoftBank for $ 40 billion, delivered chips that used less power than Intel processors. That difference – meaning cell phones could run on a battery charge all day instead of just a few hours – attracted cell phone chip makers like Qualcomm.
Over the past decade, some of Arm technology’s backers have also begun to say such chips could be used outside of cell phones. Companies such as Broadcom and Qualcomm have started designing Arm-based chips for data centers to reduce the rising power bills for Intel processors. Later they gave up the costly efforts, partly because customers demanded a higher computer speed.
On PCs, Microsoft has also spoken to Arm, with little success. While the software giant has partnered with Qualcomm to bring to market an Arm-based version of Windows and laptops that use the operating system, sales were minimal, largely due to a lack of programs made for the laptops, market researchers said.
Then came Apple’s move. The company, which had previously designed Arm-based chips for phones and tablets, said in June that it would gradually shift from the Intel processors it has used in its Mac computers since 2005. Apple said its first chip for the Mac, the M1, delivered twice the performance of a comparable Intel chip at a quarter of the power consumption.
“Every Mac with M1 will be transformed into a completely different product class,” Johny Srouji, Apple’s senior vice president of hardware technologies, said at the online event to introduce the new Macs last month.
Intel said it shouldn’t be counted. It continues to produce faster versions of its x86 chips, and many customers don’t want to rewrite the software that runs on it.
“Intel is building on more than 20 years of x86-based ecosystem work,” said Lisa Spelman, an Intel Corporate Vice President. “We ensure software compatibility and high performance, important requirements for both consumer and data center customers.”
Amazon also continues to expand the use of Intel chips for some jobs. It announced a plan on Tuesday to run Intel-powered Mac mini computers in its data centers to help programmers develop software for Apple systems without using Apple hardware.
But Arm is getting more and more competitive when it comes to computing, says Rene Haas, president of Arm’s main product group. He said Arm made significant changes to improve the computing performance of each processor core, or the individual calculators lined up on each piece of silicon.
Cloud-like computing jobs can also make better use of many relatively simple cores and dedicated circuits, Amazon’s DeSantis said. The Arm-based chip, called the Graviton2, has 64 such cores compared to up to 24 more powerful cores on Intel server chips, he said. That helps it perform computer tasks that are running simultaneously, such as presenting web pages to different people.
Ampere, a chip startup in Santa Clara, California, has developed an 80-core Arm server chip and expects to release a 128-core version next year. Renée James, CEO of Ampere, said that customers and investors include software giant Oracle, which plans to offer a cloud computing service based on Ampere’s chips.
Poor “is really at Amazon,” said James. “Their competitors will follow.”
Gerard Williams III, chief executive of Nuvia, another startup promoting Arm-based chips, said Arm backers have also benefited as Intel has lost the lead in driving manufacturing innovations that allow chips to do more at a lower cost. . Chip manufacturers such as Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. and Samsung Electronics can now package more features on every piece of silicon, meaning that Arm chip designers using them can gain speed benefits.
The change is occurring in many forms of computing. On the laptop front, Gartner, the research firm, predicted that Apple’s new Macs and the reactions of rivals Arm-based PCs would push to 13.5% of the market by 2024, up from 1.1% this year.
Chromebooks, the simple and cheaper portable laptops geared for internet use, are also increasingly adopting Arm-based chips. Arm-based laptops and related systems based on Google’s Chrome software accounted for about 11% of sales in the third quarter, up from about 4% a year earlier, according to IDC.
Software remains a question mark as most of the popular programs are designed for Intel-based systems. But even that is starting to change, with software makers like Adobe moving to support Arm-based Macs and Windows laptops. For now, both Apple and Microsoft rely on a technology called emulation to run existing programs on Arm-based systems.
Some customers of Amazon’s Arm-based computer service said they found it to be faster and cheaper than using a comparable service based on Intel’s chips. Don MacAskill, CEO of SmugMug, which runs its own photo site and the more famous Flickr, said that computer tasks such as searching billions of images are 10% to 20% faster than Amazon services that use Intel or compatible chips. He also said SmugMug had saved 38% in computer costs.
“That’s great,” he said, “and I see it right on my outline.”