What it is: Intel recently warned about intellectual property disputes if ARM processors try to emulate x86 processors.
Microsoft and Qualcomm recently hinted at the idea of running Windows on ARM processors, which are used in most mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. However, Microsoft also hinted that Windows programs, designed for x86 processors, could also run on more powerful
ARM processors. To do this, an ARM processor would have to emulate an x86 processor.
Anyone who used PowerPC Macintosh computers in the old days may remember how a program called Virtual PC would make a PowerPC emulate an x86 processor. That way you could run ordinary Windows programs on a Macintosh. The huge problem with this solution was that emulation was slow. No matter how fast the PowerPC processor might be, it could never be as fast as a native x86 processor running Windows programs.
That’s why Microsoft’s hint of emulating x86 processors on ARM processors seems dubious. ARM processors aren’t currently fast enough to emulate x86 processors at a decent speed and now Intel is threatening legal action against x86 emulation on ARM processors.
What’s interesting is that if Microsoft manages to make x86 emulation practical on ARM processors, Apple could do the same thing as well. There have been hints that Apple would eventually abandon the x86 processor in the Macintosh in favor of the power efficient ARM processors instead. In the past, Apple didn’t do this because ARM processors weren’t as fast as x86 processors. One day if ARM processors can be just as fast (or faster) than x86 processors, then x86 emulation on ARM processors could become a reality.
Apple is busy forging ahead with their own ARM processors that currently leads the market. That means if Microsoft can successfully integrate x86 emulation on ARM processors, Apple could do so as well. That would allow x86 programs to run on ARM processor.
Perhaps a better solution might be Apple’s plan to recompile apps on the Mac App Store to run under ARM processors. This would eliminate the need for developers to recompile apps on their own. Instead, Apple’s Mac App Store could automatically detect which processor a Macintosh is using and then download the appropriate version of the app whether for x86 or ARM processors.
All of this depends on whether ARM processors can exceed the benefits of x86 processors. Right now, ARM processors dominate in power efficiency. That’s why Intel dumped their Atom processor that was simply too weak, slow, and power hungry to compete against ARM processors. The main advantage x86 processors currently have is power. The moment ARM processors can exceed the power of x86 processors, there’s little reason to stay with x86 processors.
That assumes that ARM processors can catch up and surpass x86 processors in speed and power. They might, but Intel isn’t standing still. The fact that Intel is already hinting at intellectual property disputes for x86 emulation on ARM processors means Intel is already worried about the future.
With the world shifting to mobile and wearable computers, power efficient processors are the future. Intel is trying to find a niche in the future computer markets that ARM processors have already sewn up. There’s still a chance for Intel to remain relevant if they can keep their processors more powerful than ARM processors, but it’s a constant race and eventually one clear winner will likely emerge. Chances are good it won’t be Intel.