The Mobile ARMs Race

This particular article has been fermenting for a while, and it took some stimulating discussion during Akademy 2010 to kick it into publication.

I’ve been curious about where the value-added bits will be for mobile device manufacturers in the near future, especially as smartphone technology is pushed down to a near entry-level.

Soft stuff wants to be free

Apple would like us to think it’s all about apps, but I partly disagree.  App revenue is only good for early adopters, the people who Gotta Have It Now.  Everyone else expects apps to be free.  The generation of my teenage sons has decided that if the product is intangible, they shouldn’t have to pay for it.  So yes apps can certainly generate money on first introduction but the long tail of revenue will ring largely hollow.

And mobile producers are increasingly realizing that there’s no money to be made in operating systems, either.  In fact they’re a large drain on internal resources.  Thus Maemo which begat MeeGo, and Symbian being released to the wild.

Hard stuff can’t

With that in mind our focus comes back to hardware.  The most immediately obvious way to differentiate in the mobile computer space is with horsepower.  CPUs must gain speed in non-linear fashion, memory must steadily double in capacity.  Moore’s Law will be even more relevant when app revenue drops out of the picture.

I expect that very soon, mobile computer manufacturers will get really aggressive in forming tight partnerships with CPU foundries.  Just look at Nokia’s new bond with Intel.  Of course that coupling presents a potentially delicate situation given Nokia’s heavy dependence on ARM processors, so that will be an interesting scenerio to watch unfold.  Either way, a CPU arms race will drive such close partnerships as mobile device manufacturers seek any kind of edge over competitors in the area of power.  Same might be said for RAM supply as well.

Power to the people

But with great power comes great… battery consumption.  As I see it the number one complaint against the otherwise fantastic Nokia N900 is its disrespect for its own battery.  Try navigating an unfamiliar city with Ovi Maps, and in a few hours you’ll be racing for a wall outlet.

True mobile computers need to be largely divorced from their electronic tethers.  I may be crazy, but I’d like to see such devices go two full days with heavy GPS and Internet usage.  That will require some radical engineering.

Nokia is already flirting with this in looking at capturing kinetic energy of mobile computer users.  That may help the hyperactive, but not so much those who are only partially mobile.  We don’t need to worry about the fact that mobile device use is increasing in the home, as surely sedentary users will be okay with their nearby wall outlets.

Granted that reducing the consumption of GPS, wifi and cell radio is unrealistic, so other than green recharging techniques we are looking at lowering the amperage demands of general electronics as well as increasing battery capacity.

ARM is currently leading the race in power-vs-consumption, but Intel has the resources to close the gap.  Either way, CPU current draw must come down (or at least hold steady) as computational needs increase.  Not an easy task… but one that Texas Instruments is also pursuing.

The bottom line

But batteries will need more love as well.  A simple search shows many manufacturers hard at work developing next generation batteries that will be necessary for heavy mobile use.  Here, too, it is in the best interest of mobile device manufacturers to lock up suppliers of the most promising solutions.

So in summary I see CPU power as important, and certainly a compelling user experience as well, but freeing mobile devices from their wall outlet leashes will be the most critical step– or quantum leap– in winning mobile computer customers.  Whoever succeeds there will dominate the mobile landscape for some time.

10 responses to “The Mobile ARMs Race

  1. there is a lot of motion going on in the mobile hardware biz for sure

    intel is buying up lots of mobile tech, comsys most recently and supposedly in talks with infineon and new moorestown chips

    nokia spun off modem manufacture to renesas

    apple internalizing chip manufacture

    samsung prioritizing first run hardware for its own devices

    These big companies all realize that before long practically everyone in the world will have a ‘smartphone’ so you better get your supply all lined up before the big rush

  2. Steve Barker

    Although battery technology is progressing, one simple solution for the average user is the ability to swap batteries – a feature lacking in certain models on the market at the moment.

    Whilst we wait for CPU and battery technology to catch up with our demands, we surely owe it to ourselves to tell retailers in no uncertain terms that interchangeable batteries are a necessity for those of us who are truly mobile with our devices. If enough of us complain they’ll get the message back to the manufacturers – won’t they?

    Maybe I’m just being naive…

    I read elsewhere today that the forthcoming Nokia N8 battery can be changed with a torx driver and a pair of white gloves(!)

    For many this will prove too impractical and will be a reason not to buy what otherwise looks to be a promising offering.

    Apart from my trusty N900 the only other device(s) I would consider suitable for my use would be good, old-fashioned Symbian for it’s frugal power requirements – and how crazy is that?

    • I agree Steve, and thanks for adding that to the conversation.

      I want easy hot-swappable batteries. Just add a capacitor big enough to hold a minutes’ juice and that should be enough. But yeah, the torx-requiring covers have to go. Too Apple-ish.

    • I don’t agree that swapping a battery is the solution, as the person in that situation is suffering from buyer’s remorse and should have research the product prior to purchase. If replacing your own battery is something you desire, then that takes any device where you cannot do that, off the table as a purchase.

      While I am all for swapping out my own batteries, I cannot agree with anyone who complains about this AND buys an iPhone or any other such device. That’s hypocrisy.

      You should like the WHOLE package, not make the purchase or be willing to deal with the negatives without *over the top* complaining that I hear from people.

      Also, the average user and most certainly the power user has to be more forgiving, to an extent. They have this mindset that a device should last for days on end, even with usage. Back when they just made phone calls, they did.

      Now that they are so much more than just a telephone, we can not and should not expect even a day out of them if they get moderate use. To many people buy a device that does not fit their needs. If your need is lasting more than a day, then buy a device that will allow for that. If you want something with more oomph, than be prepared to bring extra batteries or charge throughout the day. If you can’t swap em out, then simply don’t purchase the device or always have a charging solution ready. 🙂

      Consumers have long forgotten that sometimes, they can’t use the latest and greatest. They want want want, with little thought to how it will fit into their life. To often now, especially in America, does the consumer buy first, realize it isn’t everything they thought it was, then complain up a storm because they didn’t do proper research first and had simply “went with the bandwagon” or listened to a friend when making the purchase decision.

      Impulse buying, good for companies; Bad for you!

  3. Battery technology is increasing at a snails pace compared with mobile devices ability to consume it. My n900 is fantastic but the battery is its biggest flaw.

  4. thank you for the informations .

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