I was recently catching up on reading about the Intel Atom architecture, or more specifically, about Moorestown and Medfield, and I have to say that Nokia’s ditching of Intel and Intel’s Moblin (married to Nokia’s Maemo through the new joint venture of MeeGo) for Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 almost starts to actually make sense. And this from someone who loves developing software in Qt!
And it all comes down to one simple reason: Intel doesn’t know what they’re doing.
I know. It’s hard to believe. But really, it’s true!
Why do I say that? Because even with Medfield, Intel is still missing the PCI bus in their System on a Chip (SoC). Why is this important, you ask? Because operating systems like Windows still require a PCI bus being present to work. Which means that even though Medfield is bringing the Intel Atom CPU (along with graphics, sound, camera, memory, etc.) to the smartphone / tablet world, it has completely missed the bus (Har har!) of being able to run a full-out real OS like Windows.
Now it remains somewhat unclear to me if Linux can be made to run without the PCI bus. Being Linux, you would think it could. In fact I’m pretty darn sure it can be done. Honestly, I’m not sure why Windows absolutely needs a PCI bus, frankly. Maybe just some bad assumptions and Windows is too heavy weight to change?
But then why did Ubuntu Mobile development come to a halt? Why did Nokia ditch working with Intel on MeeGo and switch to befriending Microsoft of all things? Anecdotally, it suggests that Linux, in fact may not be so happy without the PCI bus either. Or that there’s some kind of difficulty involved. Frankly, I’m not sure even I believe this. It sounds like FUD. Especially as Linux has been ported to all sorts of small devices with micro kernels. But one does have to wonder why this keeps happening to mobile-centric versions of Linux, an OS known for being ported to everything and anything. It is an odd mystery what is up with Linux there.
And will Microsoft address this PCI bus dependency in Windows 8 if they’re already trying to port it to ARM for tablet use?
But so if that’s the reason these Linux variations keep getting abandoned (and that’s a mighty big if, I do admit), then Nokia’s freakout might actually start to almost make some sense. (Beyond simple Microsoftian funding, the almighty dollar.) What would be the point of bringing x86 to the smartphone if you couldn’t actually run your OS on it so that you can continue to use the same applications that you do at work or at home on your computer? If you’re eternally stuck with just apps instead of real applications, then why bother to deviate from ARM in the first place? Granted, it’s still a true-enough thought process for Windows alone. Maybe Nokia just wasn’t convinced that Linux is any good on a smartphone? (Though after buying Trolltech, I’d find that really hard to believe.)
This could also, by the way, be the whole reason why Intel developed Moblin. Because if their choice to avoid the PCI bus when bringing everything else from an x86 PC into a smartphone prevented them from running an already available OS, then they would pretty much have to create their own operating system to run this deficient x86-almost-PC. That or wait for Google to port Android from ARM to x86-sans-PCI. Or wait even longer for Microsoft to do something.
Or, try to cram all of the separate chips for a full-blown Atom-based PC into a tiny smartphone package, a task not easily done! Hence the need for a simple (and small!) SoC instead of separate chips.
Okay, so I get that from a power-saving perspective, the PCI bus isn’t ideal. And so it’d eat into a smartphone’s battery life. I get that. To an extent. I mean it’s not like they’re missing from laptops, netbooks, and UMPCs (like the Viliv S5 that can fit in your pocket) which are also run on batteries. Surely someone could think of some nifty power-saving way to put PCI bus support into a smartphone SoC like Medfield … if they had their head on straight.
But, alas, no. That’s what Intel’s Oak Trail is for: Atom in netbooks and tablets. That can run Windows.
Not smartphones though. Because it’s not one SoC, it’s many chips.
Is anyone else confused?
What in the world is Intel thinking?
How do I even put this in a way that makes sense…
Okay. So Intel’s focus here is on crushing ARM. Intel is tired of missing out on this hugely growing market. Smartphones are the new sugar rush and everyone wants their candy. Intel can’t afford to neglect this market any longer. (Or any longer than they already have done by twiddling their thumbs while testing the waters instead of just boldly going forward and setting trends.)
ARM, a competing processor architecture, is frankly just nowhere near as mature as x86. It may be low power, but it’s also lesser in functionality. This is why your smartphones only run apps instead of full-blown applications. (Well, the main reason anyway. Apple’s strict near-fascist software development regime is another matter entirely and really only applies to their products.) ARM might be great for phones, but not for computers. Not yet at least. Maybe not even ever. Only time will tell there. Though certainly many would try to debate the point, from both sides. Honestly, I don’t care either way so long as at the end of the day I have full-blown OS and application software and a compiler to make my own software with.
But so Intel wants into the market that ARM is massively consuming. What do they do? Do they use all of the great versatility and advanced features of their x86 Atom line to show how you can make a smartphone truly smart?
Instead Intel works hard on making a super-low-power x86 Atom-based solution for smartphones so that their answer to ARM has the same (or better) battery life.
That’s all Intel is doing. They have effectively dumbed down the PC to make it as useless as a smartphone. Instead of upping the smartphone to the capabilities of a PC.
So here’s a wild analogy for you: Say you’re a hunter. Say you’re hunting wild boar, a powerful and respected creature in its own right. It may be smaller than man, but it’s fast, agile, and has big sharp tusks. Do you, the hunter, get on your hands and knees and chase around the wild boar tooth-to-tusk? Of course not! You’ll get shredded! That’d be downright daft to fight a wild boar on its own terms. No, you, the hunter, get out your spear, or your bow, or your gun, and you take the wild boar down with your superior technology.
Intel, get off your darned hands and knees, stop trying to out-bite the boar, and pick up a gun already! Or the ARM boar is just going to continue to gore you in the face!