Intel and Intel-compatible x86 CPUs are everywhere around us. It’s been a long time since you could buy a desktop or laptop computer with anything but an x86 CPU in it. Even Apple, a longtime anything-but-Intel stalwart, started using x86 CPUs more than a decade ago. That raises a fair question: Why is x86 so popular?
The IBM train
IBM is no longer a dominant force in computing, but up until the late 1980s, it dominated that industry. When IBM released a personal computer in 1981, it was almost guaranteed to dominate the small computer industry too, as long as it wasn’t complete junk.
IBM studied the industry carefully before jumping in, and while the IBM PC was a collection of compromises, it was powerful enough that people were willing to pay an IBM price to get one.
The IBM PC became an industry standard. IBM intended to own and control it, and that didn’t exactly work out for them. Within a couple of years, several companies sold IBM-compatible computers. Some, like Leading Edge and Packard Bell, undercut IBM’s prices. Some, like Compaq, found niches in the market IBM neglected and filled it themselves. Others did both. People bought them in large numbers, largely so they could run Lotus 1-2-3, Momentum built momentum. When companies developed software, the IBM PC was a logical choice because of the huge number of PCs and clones in the marketplace.
Once Intel had that momentum and all that legacy code, it became really hard to switch to anything else. Virtually all the software everyone wanted to run existed on the x86 platform. Even though the popular software changes from time to time, x86 gives continuity. That’s been the secret of its longevity.
Intel didn’t stand still
Even Intel didn’t expect x86 to last forever. But the combination of pricing the chips high enough to easily finance new factories but undercut other architectures in price kept it going. In the 1990s, Microsoft hedged its bets and developed Windows NT on non-Intel CPUs to keep it from being dependent on a CPU with a questionable future, but Intel always found ways to make its CPUs just fast enough for people to keep buying them.
One by one, Intel caught up with its faster, more elegant rivals and overtook them.
Windows NT and Linux
The existence of Windows NT and Linux also proved critical. MS-DOS was popular, but it wasn’t what we would today consider an industrial-grade operating system. People bought dorm fridge-sized computers running operating systems like Unix for that. But it was expensive.
The arrival of Windows NT and Linux in the early 1990s meant you could do serious computing on cheap Intel-based computers. The price difference was enough that many people bought the cheap machines and lived with their limitations. Every few years, Intel released a new series of chips with fewer limitations, until there was virtually no one left.
What about ARM?
There may very well be more ARM CPUs in the world than x86. But ARM licensees play in a world with lower margins than Intel wants. I wouldn’t rule out ARM doing to Intel what Intel did to everyone else, but I also wouldn’t count on it either.
The good-enough solution
I’ve said this before, and I wasn’t the first to say it. Free markets don’t pick the best solution, generally speaking. Free markets gravitate toward cheap, good-enough solutions. Intel decided in the 1980s to make its living selling CPUs that cost hundreds of dollars, not tens of dollars and not thousands of dollars. Intel was shrewd enough to invest in new chipmaking facilities while some of its rivals squandered their advantages. That meant that more often than not, Intel had the best CPUs on the market in the $100-$500 price range. Not every year, but over the course of a decade, more years than not they did.
That, more than anything else, is why x86 is so popular.