I alluded to some fictional future tech the other day, specifically ARM-powered Macbook Airs. My reasonings, let me show you them.
- With OSX 10.6, Apple announced Grand Central Dispatch, a framework for managing multithreaded programs across multiple cores, which they released, surprisingly, under the Apache open-source license. This gives programmers who take advantage of it an easy way to take good advantage of multi-core processors without the usual agonies of threading. You might not think this is a huge deal when we’re talking the usual two- or four-core processors on most modern machines, but
- Apple is one of the very few licensees of Imagination Technology’s SGX543MP2-16 ARM chips. In terms of performance, the cutting edge there is not quite as fast as your current Atoms, but there’s sixteen general-purpose GPU cores in those chips, plus a pair of 3D GPUs and 2d and crypto acceleration thrown in for kicks.
- One of the neatest thing about these chips is that you can actually power down individual cores to save power, and fast enough that you can do it between frames of playing video. Relatedly, this is something PA Semi was also very good at before Apple bought them – aggressive power management on ARM-based systems. In terms of pure processing power ARM is not as fast as the best processors that Intel has to offer but in per-watt terms x86 doesn’t even come close. That plus 16 cores plus GCD is going to be a hard act to follow for anyone in the portable space stuck in Intel-land.
- Microsoft has asked Intel to produce a 16-core Atom chip, it was reported earlier this year, despite the fact that they’re pushing towards ARM as well.
… and Apple has their annual World Wide Developer Conference coming up in June. My predictions are as follows:
- Apple’s next generation of laptop hardware will run ARM chips, likely starting with the Airs. They’ve pulled this switch off before in their move from PPC to Intel and their insistence on total vertical control of the development environment is what lets them do it; the App Store model is only going to make that easier. They’ll announce this at WWDC, and it will look a lot like the PPC-Intel move did – if you’re using XCode, the next version of XCode has a checkbox in it saying “ARM” that you’ll click and be fine. If not, you’re basically 100% fucked.
- At some point late in the year we’ll learn that Adobe doesn’t develop for Macs with XCode. They’ve got their own proprietary thing, because that’s the sort of thing they’d do.
- Windows 8, definitely ARM support and probably all of it, is going to ship late. Microsoft is going to be in a lot of trouble in the laptop space late next year, because without ARM support they won’t be able to sell a product with competitive battery life.
- In the longer, vaguer term, processing power per watt is going to be the most important computer metric of the next decade. Virtualized services running on ARM blades are going to displace everything that doesn’t require screamingly fast sequential computing as close to the bare metal as possible, which is to say “almost all of it”. In two years your more expensive 2U servers will have several hundred processor cores in them, consuming less power than your beefier 2U servers to today.
- Steve Ballmer will lose his job by 2012 or Microsoft continues its long slide into irrelevance.
We’ll know in a few months!