You might ask what do I mean? Having first visited Brazil in 1975, I was struck by its vibrancy, its youthfulness and its raw resources and said that it felt like a country that was about to become a major economic player. I was told that people had been saying this for the last few decades and that Brazil never seemed to fulfil its promise. I do hope that the ARM processor world is not going to be like Brazil as it seems on the cusp of a take over of mainstream computing devices. There are good reasons why Brazil has not fulfilled its promise, but, to me, there is very little standing in the way of ARM ascendency, except for the ARM Community itself.
For two very simple reasons.
1) ARM’s licensing structure encourages experimentation whereas Intel’s licensing structure discourages experimentation, at least, in my opinion.
2) Unless you enjoy heating your room with your computer, you can achieve the same processing power using a smaller CPU with much lower cooling requirements allowing for relatively tiny computers.
History of ARM
Our story probably starts in 1977 when ‘Science of Cambridge’ the forerunner of Sinclair Research, produced the Mk14 microcomputer kit using a National Semiconductor CPU and 256 bytes of RAM. This lead to the ZX81 and Spectrum and created a whole new market for personal computers. The Apple II, TRS-80 and Commodore PET were just too expensive for most enthusiasts but then Chris Curry left Sinclair and formed Acorn Computers, launching its first product in 1978. From this the BBC micro and Archimedes were produced. The Acorn RISC Machine (ARM) project started in 1983 and Acorn produced the first commercial RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computing) processor in 1985. With its simpler instruction set and subsequent lower transistor count it was able to runner faster than processors that had to cope with a huge library of machine code instructions. Apple joined Acorn to further the ARM processor work and the pair spun ARM Ltd off into a separate company in the early 1990s. Apart from its RISC core, the ARM processor model differs considerable from X86 processors in the licensing model.
Usage of ARM devices
Mainstream Developers began to exploit the freedoms that they had, utilising the small size and small power requirements to develop powerful smart phones and tablets. As a result, we saw a mushrooming in sales of Android and Apple iOS phones and tablets, rocking the established dominance of Intel’s X86 based devices that generally used a version of Microsoft Windows.
New entrants There are many ARM devices on the market. For instance, the Debian based Armbian operating system supports the following. From Armbian.com
Beelink X2, Orange Pi PC plus, Orange Pi Plus 2E, Orange Pi Lite, Roseapple Pi, NanoPi M1, NanoPi M1+, NanoPi Neo, NanoPi Neo2, NanoPi Duo, Le Potato, Espressobin, Pine64, soPine64, Pinebook A64, pcDuino2, pcDuino3, Odroid C0/C1/C1+, Banana Pi M2+, Hummingboard 2, Odroid C2, Orange Pi 2, Orange Pi One, Orange Pi PC, Orange Pi PC2, Orange Pi Prime, Orange Pi Win, Orange Pi Plus 1 & 2, Clearfog, Lemaker Guitar, Odroid XU4, Odroid HC1, Udoo Neo, Banana Pi M2, Orange Pi A31S, Cubieboard 1, Cubieboard 2, Hummingboard, Lamobo R1, Banana Pi PRO, Orange Pi mini A20, Olimex Lime A10, Olimex Micro, Olimex Lime 2, pcDuino3 nano, Banana Pi Plus A20, Udoo quad, Orange Pi A20, Olimex Lime 1, Banana Pi, Cubox-i, Cubietruck, Tinkerboard, Miqi, Rock64.
Of these, probably the best known is the Raspberry Pi, with a well developed Debian based operating system which supports many Linux packages but not all. The Hardkernel Odroid XU4 is possibly the most powerful of the Single Board Computers (SBC) out there, again with a Debian Linux operating system available and its octo-core processor gives it amazing performance. The ASUS Tinker Board is less powerful but its Linux operating system is better matched to the hardware than that of the Odroid, so in some applications it out performs the more powerful XU4. I’m sure that there are good technical reasons why there cannot be one generic ARM based Linux operating system but it is time that there was one.
There are many who want to use phones or tablets who are unhappy with either the personal data mining approach of Android or the closed environment of Apple’s iOS based devices. For those, a few developers are working on Linux based devices but seem to be working in isolated silos, at the moment. Surely that must change soon.
As Linus Torvold is quoted as saying in 2011 “Gaah Guys, the whole ARM thing is a f***ing pain in the ass” because different people in different “ARM Trees” were renaming devices in a seemingly random fashion. But we are a long way on from 2011.
In September Apple threw down the gauntlet when it launched its latest iPad.. The top tier Macbook has an Intel Core M7 processor while the iPad Pro has an ARM (RISC) chip. Which one performs better? According to GeekBench, the iPad Pro outperforms the Macbook.
Come on ARM community. Work together and produce a world beater. All the tools are at your finger tips. You just have to learn to talk to one another.