Why I don't expect ARM-based netbooks to be a success

April 5, 2009

I saw yet another story recently on how low-power netbooks are finally going to lead to ARM-based machines successfully challenging the x86 hegemony in general purpose computers. As the story goes, netbook makers don't need much CPU power or to run Windows, but they do need very low power consumption, and so they will turn to Linux-based ARM machines.

This is a fine theory and a fine story, but I don't think it's going to work out in practice. Why is really simple to explain, so let's start with Flash. Specifically, the fact that ARM-based netbooks aren't going to have Flash.

And Flash is just an example. The general problem for people trying to make non-x86-based general purpose computers is that so very many pieces of what people expect to be present (and fast) on such machines are currently x86-only binary blobs, or if they have alternative implementations the alternatives are significantly slower. Flash is the most obvious tip of the iceberg, because I don't think you're going to sell many netbooks that can't watch Youtube videos at full speed.

(I suspect that this is especially the case as many things are adding JIT systems for additional speed; my impression is that most of those JITs primarily or exclusively target x86 code generation.)

You can sell ARM-based machines, and lots of people do. But they aren't sold as general purpose machines, they're sold as PDAs or cellphones or the like, with significantly different software requirements.

This x86 focus can be overcome, but it is probably going to take a significant development effort, which means significant amounts of time and money. For at least some pieces, such as Flash, it's also going to require you to convince commercial software companies that there is a large enough ARM-based market to make it worth porting their software.

(And since netbooks are a low-cost, low-margin product, it's hard to see the makers of ARM-based netbooks coming up with the time and the money necessary.)

Written on 05 April 2009.
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Last modified: Sun Apr 5 00:34:15 2009
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