Processor Whispers - About Beauty and Creativity
By Andreas Stiller
They were almost history, but they got a second chance and here they come: the tablet PCs. The talk is about Microsoft, HP, Dell, Nvidia, Apple, Google and many others – and increasingly it is about snapping dragons, too.
Apple did it again. Just like last year at CeBIT, with the news of the Nehalem processor inside the Mac Pro, Apple’s marketing strategists managed to draw a lot of attention - without even being present as an exhibitor or actually having a product to show off.
On the internet, as yet unconfirmed rumors about an Apple tablet PC in the form of some kind of giant iPod Touch have made their rounds for a long time, everybody thought they knew something about it. Maybe it will come with an ARM chip from Qualcomm inside or perhaps it will be an Intel x86 after all? But do we really care? Nowadays it’s the apps that matter and not the underlying hardware. Intel seems to be of the same opinion and is now planning to enter the game with the launch of its own app store, the “AppupCenter”.
The other competitors are also trying to hurriedly map the terrain ahead of the presumed market entry by Apple: Microsoft, HP, Dell, Lenovo, Freescale, Nvidia, Archos and all the rest of them. The Redmonders had already dedicated themselves to the topic of tablet PCs years ago, though with little success. However, they couldn’t or wouldn’t present their new device in the making, the “Courier Tablet PC”. Instead, CEO Ballmer briefly and unemotionally showed off the HP product “Slate” running Windows 7 during his keynote at CES. Neither Microsoft nor HP would talk about the processor, but most probably it’s an Intel Atom. Dell was equally tight lipped concerning the hardware innards of its 5 inch prototype (Moorestown?).
Unfortunately, the Intel chips continue to be clearly inferior to the ARM on some important points. Concerning energy consumption, pricing, and HD viability, for instance, the ARMs can position themselves very well; one example being Nvidia’s new duo-core Tegra with a consumption of a mere 500mW when playing HD video - with a resolution of up to 1080p. A resolution that Intel’s new Atom “Pineview” with integrated graphics can only dream of as it won’t squeeze out more than 720p. Intel has always highlighted a superior internet viability of their x86 chips in comparison to ARM, but what about judder-free HD videos from Youtube and company? – the Pineview leaves you out in the woods.
Intel boss Otellini was able to present the first Moorestown equipped smartphone, but the ARMed forces weren’t idle either. Apart from Samsung, Qualcomm is also now increasingly getting into the act. Not only does Google’s smartphone Nexus and the Smart from HTC rely on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon, but so do more and more important Intel partners like HP, Dell, Lenovo and Asus, with their mobile solutions. Add Acer, Samsung, LG, Marvel and Freescale as Qualcomm partners and you’ve got a fresh wind blowing against Intel. Additionally, Qualcomm is having a go at small devices, with the color ebook “Mirasol” for instance.
With an annual turnover of about 6.5 billion dollars, the company from San Diego is the international number six of the semiconductor business now - even though, in contrast to most of the others in the business, it doesn’t produce semiconductors itself. The manufacturing is taken care of by TSMC, UMC and Chartered. This year, according to a recently signed preliminary contract, Globalfoundries in Dresden, Germany, will be added to that list.
Qualcomm revived a frequency hopping method - which had once been invented by the prettiest woman of Hollywood, Hedy Lamarr, and the composer Georg Antheil - for mobile telecommunications, Bluetooth and so on, with much success in the 90s. The actress born in Austria with the name Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, who acted with Heinz Rühmann among others, before the Nazi era, was not only beautiful, but also creative. She and Georg Antheil filed the U.S. patent 2 292 387 for a “secret communication system” during World War II.
It was 50 years later that the method was first commercialized – by Qualcomm. Today, the company can show off 10,000 U.S. patents, though 7000 of them are still stuck in the queue for evaluation at the U.S. Patent Office. Only a small fraction (391) of them was granted last year. However, that’s still almost twice as much as AMD and Globalfoundries got (202) and also more than Apple received (307). Yet, it’s still by far too little to get into the top-35 list of the most inventive companies. The patent rage of semiconductor-market leader Intel subsided a little – down to 1563 granted patents in 2009 from 1775 in 2008 – and only sufficed for the eighth place. On the top, IBM strengthened its long lasting leadership by an 18 percent increase with almost 5000 patents granted and hence got further ahead of Samsung (3830). Also Microsoft is advancing – even if partly with inexpressibly petty software patents – and holds the third place with 2900 of these overwhelming patents now. If you know how to go from one page of a document to the next using software – voilà, that’s Microsoft’s U.S. patent 7 415 666, granted in 2008.
Speaking of Microsoft: the enteprising company Qualcomm is also dabbling in operating systems now. The Smart from HTC is supposed to pass the moose test, which in this case is Flash or Shockwave for the small mobile devices, with BrewMP. While Intel was recently still giggling over the lacking Flash viability of ARM operating systems – today, that’s yesterday’s flash in the pan. Apparently Adobe provided ample assistance in the brewing of Qualcomm BrewMP and Google Android 2.1 and has fermented some valuable Flash compatibility.
So it seems Intel will have to come up with something new. Anyway, until now, Windows Mobile is of little use as a promoter for x86 in small portable devices. It’s mostly been used for ARM in any case and it’s unlikely that the long promised super-duper version 7 will roll out before the second half of 2011. Thus, Symbian, iPhone OS, RIM OS, WebOS, BrewMP and Linux – the latter in its Android version – can divide the market of the ultra portables among themselves. By the way: I like the name of the Qualcomm operating system best.
PC breaks Pi Record
So far, the calculation of pi to insane numbers of digits had been a job for large supercomputers. But not anymore: The French software engineer Fabrice Bellard equipped his desktop PC (Core i7) with 7.5 terabytes of hard disc space and – by using an intelligent algorithm and an efficient program – was able to set a new record of 2.7 trillion digits after just around 100 days. For those of you who want to do a quick check if his results are correct: the last digits after the 2 699 999 989 991st digit are 75972 30153.