It’s easy to understand the battle for the future of computing when it’s about adding new cameras, more features etc. But no one realises the more subtle changes that have been happening around us, with effects that will possibly be much more significant. Yes, we’re back at Apple’s move to ARM-based chipsets for its PC products. In one of the biggest announcements of the year so far, chipmaker Nvidia became the largest chip company to move towards ARM-based chipsets. Nvidia isn’t just moving though, the company is also trying to mould these chips with its current graphics chip designs — specifically the RTX GPUs.
All too technical isn’t it?
You’re right. This isn’t particularly easy to understand, but it does have overarching implications on how things will work in gadgets and devices you buy in the next decade or so. Nvidia announced a partnership with MediaTek yesterday, which will see the two companies try to create a laptop that runs on ARM processors melded with Nvidia’s RTX GPU architecture. This is essentially like taking two similar looking puzzle pieces from two different puzzles and trying to put them together. If the company succeeds, it could lead to great results.
The first puzzle in this question is the laptop you use for most of your work today. The software you use on these is based on something called the x86 architecture, that was designed by Intel. Do you know how car chassis work? Each chassis is designed for a specific car. You can build another one on top of the same chassis, but you will need some hammering to fit the new shape. It’s like that, but much more complicated.
Take Adobe’s Creative Cloud apps for instance. Apps like Photoshop do not offer all their functionalities on mobile phones do they? That’s because they have been designed to take advantage of GPUs like Nvidia’s RTX cards and Intel’s processors, which are all built on the x86 architecture. They could be made to run on ARM chips to some extent, but not as well as they do right now. And some features will not work downright.
Let’s make that even simpler, shall we? When Apple first announced the iPadOS for its iPads, the idea was to make the premier tablets more like laptops, complete with touchpad and keyboard support. Companies like Adobe have done the work to bring their apps onto the iPad, but despite trying for a couple of years, you cannot find a full features version of Photoshop of Premiere Pro for laptops and tablets right now.
We don’t really need to know what the problem is here, just that there is one. The fact is that it takes developers some time to port their apps and software to a new architecture, and with the first devices coming into the market, they’re just starting to do that now. In the short run, it means you may look at ARM-based devices and consider what all software you will have to give up in order to take advantage of these new devices.
Could this be good for the future of computing?
You’re probably wondering why a simple tie-up between Nvidia and MediaTek is being called a “move” to ARM right? Well, there are two reasons for that. First, Nvidia didn’t just announce this partnership, it also announced new chips called Grace, which are based on ARM architectures and are targeted at data centers. That doesn’t really matter to you, but what does is that when companies decide to use certain technology for data centers, you know they’re serious about it.
Secondly, when Apple and Microsoft decided to move to ARM chips, they created emulators to build a bridge between the ARM and x86 architectures. Nvidia, on the other hand, is trying to meld the two architectures together by trying to merge RTX and ARM, which may become a blueprint for many others.
Remember when we said companies like Adobe haven’t been able to port all features to ARM chips in over two years? Well, Nvidia may end up paving the way for such achievements.