Will ARM overtake x86?

Here’s an interesting question I got recently: Will ARM overtake x86?

I think the answer depends on how you define “overtake.”

Will ARM overtake x86
ARM CPUs may very well outnumber x86, but displacing x86 isn’t something I’d bet on any time soon.

If you mean everyone setting aside x86-based computers in favor of something running ARM, I don’t expect it to happen. There’s just too much Windows software compiled for x86 that people aren’t going to be willing to leave behind. Plus, ARM CPUs aren’t powerful enough to emulate x86 at a rate that allows anything like native speed.

So there will always be a few billion computers in the world running Windows or Linux or Mac OS X. And the majority of that population is going to be based on some kind of x86 CPU. Sure, there are the rumors that Apple wants to switch Macs to ARM. If they can get high-end x86-like speed out of an ARM CPU, it might make sense. But that’s still a few hundred million machines. Even if we assume that change will happen someday, x86 will remain dominant on desktop and server computers.

When it comes to dollars, x86 has a big advantage as well. Intel and AMD ship a few hundred million CPUs per year and you can conservatively estimate that the median selling price of those CPUs is around $100, if not more. ARM CPUs often sell for $10 or less. When it comes to dollar figures, it would be hard for ARM to overtake x86.

But that low price means that if you mean sheer number of units shipped, ARM may very well overtake x86. The trend right now is to put CPUs in everything, even light bulbs. Intel chips are way too expensive for that. So that means light bulbs will be using something a lot cheaper. That field is wide open, and ARM is likely to be one of many contenders there.

For that matter, ARM is always going to have an advantage in tablets and phones due to cost. Intel is trying to get into tablets but one has to wonder how badly they want to be in that market. I know where to get an Android tablet that costs $30. Intel doesn’t want to be inside that, because Intel doesn’t want to sell $4 CPUs. Other devices like smart TVs are more likely to use ARM than anything else. ARM chips are cheap, and the development tools already exist.

So I can definitely envision a future, not all that far off, where we are surrounded by more ARM CPUs than x86.

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