Nvidia, ARM, x86 and China’s Battle Royal

A look at all the players in the future microprocessor wars.

We now have the news that Nvidia is in advance talks about buying ARM Ltd., which designs the ARM instruction set and CPU references designs which are used by mobile phones and tablets all over the world. Even some game consoles such as Nintendo Switch and the discontinued handheld PlayStation Vita used ARM processors.

And of course now we know Apple is switching all their laptops and desktops over to ARM. So ARM definitely has some momentum. There has been much speculation about where this leaves Intel, AMD and the x86 instruction set architecture which they champion and which has dominated the PC industry for decades.

I have also speculated on how ARM could usurp x86 dominance in this article, where I discuss the Apple development as well as the server space development with the ARM Ampere and Graviton2 (Amazon) chips. But now it turns out that there is yet another player in the market which has an interest in seeing the demise of x86, which I had not considered before: Nvidia.

Why would Nvidia love to see x86 kicked to the curb? Despite Nvidia’s ability to produce the highest performance graphics cards they don’t completely dominate the market. In fact most GPUs sold are intel based GPUs. Why is that? Why because intel can integrate CPUs on the same die as the CPU of course. This is a huge advantage, especially as we are increasingly moving towards systems on a chip (SoC) designs.

Nvidia competitor AMD is however able to compete in this space since they make x86 CPUs. Nvidia cannot wrestle their way into this space since they cannot make x86 CPUs due to their restrictive licensing. However they could make ARM systems on a chip with a CPU and Nvidia GPU. This puts Nvidia’s desire to own ARM into perspective. An ARM future they control where x86 is dead is a very lucrative future for them.

Thus we we can add yet another shark in the water circling Intel sitting on its x86 throne: Ampere, Amazon, Apple and Nvidia. Oh and let us not forget China. China knows its economy and future technology dominance will require CPUs. It knows the US can hurt it through its control of x86. Thus China will have to aim towards either making sure ARM forever stays in neutral territory or they somehow control it. Alternatively they go with RISC-V chips.

Either way we are at the beginning of a major technology battle pitting the worlds most powerful technology companies and the world’s most powerful countries against each other.

Computer news has been rather boring for years in my opinion. It was more fun in the 80s and early 90s when we had far more architectures fighting for control. Now we it looks like we are entering a new battle for dominance between x86, ARM and RISC-V.

The PC market itself may split between manufacturers siding with Intel and AMD, while others side with ARM. Perhaps there will even be some players trying to push RISC-V based PCs. But that is too early to tell. It would most likely require Microsoft support.

Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.

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