What it is: Intel processors have conquered the server market, but ARM processors are starting to grow in popularity.
It’s easy o see what happened to the PC market. In the past, you had to use a PC for everything from browsing the Internet to getting email and instant messages. Then smartphones appeared and now most people don’t need to use a PC for everything when they can use a smartphone or tablet instead. That means far fewer sales of PCs.
Nobody can argue that smartphones and tablets haven’t dented the PC market, which will likely never recover back to its previous peaks of never-ending growth. However, there’s another aspect of the PC vs. mobile computing market. PCs typically use Intel processors while mobile devices (smartphones and tablets) use ARM processors. The main reason why most companies use ARM processors for mobile devices is because ARM processors cost less, use less power, and generate far less heat, which is ideal for a mobile device.
Intel even abandoned further development of their low-powered processor called the Atom. The Atom processor was basically a scaled down x86 processor designed to use less power but also provide less processing horsepower at the same time. That made the Atom processor perfect for smaller, mobile computing devices such as inexpensive laptops.
While Intel has essentially lost the bulk of the mobile computing market to ARM processors, they’ll likely continue to dominate the PC market and the server market — for now. That’s because ARM processors are steadily making their way into servers.
Data centers running servers tend to require lots of power and cooling to run efficiently. Yet what makes ARM processors so appealing for mobile devices also makes them appealing for servers as well. ARM processors draw less power and generate far less heat than x86 processors from Intel and AMD. Best of all, ARM processors cost much less, so ARM processors offer the following three major advantages over x86 processors for servers:
- Uses less electricity (which saves money)
- Generates less heat (which saves money on lower cooling costs for air conditioning)
- Costs less
Right now, Intel processors are still more powerful than ARM processors but as ARM processors get more powerful and still require less power while generating less heat, there will come a point where it will only be financially feasible to use ARM processors instead of traditional x86 processors. Since Intel makes the bulk of x86 processors, that means ARM processors have not only hurt Intel’s profits from the PC market, but now threaten to hurt Intel’s profits from the server market as well.
Just as Intel can’t rely on the PC market to magically rebound, so they can’t also expect x86 processors to remain dominant in the server market as well. With ARM processors getting more powerful while costing much less, it’s likely that Apple has already been testing a version of OS X to run on ARM processors.
Back in 2006, Apple tran sitioined from PowerPC processors to Intel processors. That’s because PowerPC processors weren’t advancing fast enough and couldn’t remain cool enough for laptop use. The switch to Intel processors didn’t come overnight because Apple and secretly been testing OS X on both PowerPC and Intel processors for years. To make the transition smoother, they even included Rosetta, a program that would allow PowerPC programs to run on Intel processors. That meant you could transition to an Intel Macintosh without having to buy all new software.
Eventually people stopped making software for older, PowerPC Macintoshes and Apple eventually retired Rosetta since most people didn’t need it any more. Yet Apple made the transition from PowerPC processors to Intel processors smoothly and easily. You can bet that apple is secretly running OS X on ARM processors as well while also giving iOS (which runs on ARM processors) more capabilities. Most likely, iOS will become the dominant operating system for Apple instead of transitioning OS X to ARM processors.
Whatever happens in the Apple world, the truth is that ARM processors have taken over the mobile computing market and will slowly encroach on the server market. That’s bad news for Intel and good news for ARM. ARM processors are the future until the next generation of processors takes over from there.