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Issues in the transition from x86 architecture to ARM on Intel and AMD

Both Intel and AMD enjoy a duopoly in the PC as they are the only manufacturers of CPUs compatible with the x86 ISA and therefore the only ones that can run the software designed for that platform. But in recent years we have seen a significant advance in architecture with ISA ARM, to the point where many people claim that they could replace x86 in the future, affecting Intel and AMD in the process.

If all this happened, this would lead to Intel and AMD to cut their margins on their x86 CPUs which is what mainly sustains them. Since AMD’s financial situation is more delicate than Intel’s, this change would affect it much more. But both companies have sufficient knowledge of the market to anticipate this situation and not be swallowed up by the change.

A precedent, the fall of KODAK

A concept within the world of technology is that of breakthrough innovations, these are technologies that do the same as other existing ones but starting at the lowest part of the market. Its main advantage? They are more accessible, either in use or in price for consumers.

In the world of photography, KODAK had the dominance due to the fact that they had a near monopoly on film reels and they maintained it while the quality of digital photography did not reach adequate levels. But the entry of cameras in mobile phones, the rapid technological advancement together with the convenience for users made the consumption of people gradually move towards digital photography.

KODAK’s reaction? Moving towards the higher ranges on the market taking advantage of the higher image quality of their reels, but little by little they were cornered until they disappeared as soon as the quality of the digital photography was good enough. Reality? He had enough money and they had even invested in digital photography technology, but the goose that laid the golden eggs was on the reels. Which led them to never take the paradigm leap seriously.

Will ARM really replace x86?

ARM x86

The truth is that we do not know and with the current purchase of ARM by NVIDIA we know what the future will really be in that regard one hundred percent. But we have to bear in mind that the possibility exists from the moment that Microsoft the has a version of his future Windows 10X for ARM, that although in principle it would not run the software for x86 natively, we cannot forget that Apple has made the same transition and now x86 applications for macOS work on their proprietary ARM-based CPUs.

A massive transition of the existing software from x86 to ARM is not impossible, we may see in the future some of the most used applications distributed in two different binaries for compatibility between both ISAs. But mainly the key is that the first consumer of hardware are PC manufacturers and assemblers, who can declare themselves in “default” and start selling parallel models with ARM cores at lower prices.

Another front is NVIDIA, which if I can buy ARM will propose ARM core-based PCs as CPUs in combination with their RTX GPUs. It must be taken into account that they have a great influence on the video game market and if the game goes well can convince to port x86 PC games to ARM. The cost of doing it? Very low really since the most expensive thing in the development of a video game is not the code, but the multimedia assets that would already be developed from the previous versions.

The transition from ARM to x86 for Intel and AMD will not be easy

intel-vs-amd-vs-arm

The set of registers and instructions not only defines the compatibility of the binaries, but also the way in which the instructions are executed and especially how the processor accesses memory, so the amount of changes required to make a CPU with ISA ARM is titanic and so much for Intel as for AMD it would mean changing their CPUs completely from the first to the last transistor.

So far both AMD and Intel take advantage of what was developed in previous versions of their architectures as a basis to create new ones, when a new Zen core or an Intel Core comes out, they inherit much of the work done in previous iterations. In the case of a jump to ARM we are talking about a jump that requires profound changes.

Fortunately, ARM licenses a good part of the technology, but this has a trap, since in the world of ARM CPUs we have companies like Apple, Qualcomm and Samsung whose cores to obtain the maximum performance do not make use of ARM designs but of your own despite ISA compatibility, so Intel and AMD to be competitive will have to develop the cores in their entirety.