Is Microsoft Looking to Dominate Wireless with Strong "ARM" Tactics?

New licensing agreement with cellphone chip designer may signal an attempt to replicate its PC success

2 min read
Is Microsoft Looking to Dominate Wireless with Strong "ARM" Tactics?

By now, everyone who keeps an eye on the consumer electronics market is aware of the way Microsoft operates. It has been repeatedly taken to task by European and U.S. authorities for wielding its Windows operating system monopoly like a cudgel to prevent upstarts from horning in on its territory or as a battering ram for breaking into new arenas.

So when it was reported that Microsoft has expanded its licensing agreement with mobile processor designer ARM, industry analysts immediately began plotting out the software maker’s possible chess moves. How will Ballmer & Co. put itself in a position to reap more from the fact that wireless handset makers currently sell more than a billion of these devices a year? Though the Redmond, Wash., software behemoth is being tight lipped about how it plans to use the parts of the ARM instruction set to which it has just gained access, it is believed that the motive is to learn how to optimize software packages like Windows Phone 7 so that they run faster on chips that require less power and therefore offer longer battery life in devices designed to slip into one’s pocket. That makes a lot of sense, considering its upcoming launch of the Windows Phone 7 handset with AT&T as its primary service provider.

But if history is a reliable barometer, what Microsoft really covets is what it has enjoyed with desktop and laptop PCs: being the maker of go-to software that is so basic as to be indispensable. Imagine what it would be like for Microsoft to find itself in a monopoly position with respect to some element of the new smartphones, e-book readers, and competitors to Apple’s iPad tablet coming to market in the next few years. With that in mind, Microsoft would be hard pressed to remain a bit player in a market segment where fortunes are continually being minted. But one question remains: Will the company claim a niche because a newfound understanding of how ARM processors work will yield superior software, or will it default to strong arm tactics of the type that once had it on the brink of being broken up like AT&T?


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The First Million-Transistor Chip: the Engineers’ Story

Intel’s i860 RISC chip was a graphics powerhouse

21 min read
Twenty people crowd into a cubicle, the man in the center seated holding a silicon wafer full of chips

Intel's million-transistor chip development team

In San Francisco on Feb. 27, 1989, Intel Corp., Santa Clara, Calif., startled the world of high technology by presenting the first ever 1-million-transistor microprocessor, which was also the company’s first such chip to use a reduced instruction set.

The number of transistors alone marks a huge leap upward: Intel’s previous microprocessor, the 80386, has only 275,000 of them. But this long-deferred move into the booming market in reduced-instruction-set computing (RISC) was more of a shock, in part because it broke with Intel’s tradition of compatibility with earlier processors—and not least because after three well-guarded years in development the chip came as a complete surprise. Now designated the i860, it entered development in 1986 about the same time as the 80486, the yet-to-be-introduced successor to Intel’s highly regarded 80286 and 80386. The two chips have about the same area and use the same 1-micrometer CMOS technology then under development at the company’s systems production and manufacturing plant in Hillsboro, Ore. But with the i860, then code-named the N10, the company planned a revolution.

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