The XO-2 is going Embedded RISC? So will everyone else!

The XO-2 is going Embedded RISC? So will everyone else!

Summary: Yesterday,  OLPC project founder Nicholas Negroponte indicated that their next generation XO-2 will almost certainly eschew it's current x86-based design and move towards one that is based on the ARM, the most common embedded RISC architecture in the world. It's used in over a billion cell phones and smartphones, including the iPhone and the BlackBerry, and is licensed for use in embedded CPUs produced by Texas Instruments, Marvell, Broadcom, nVidia, Samsung, and FreeScale, among others.



Yesterday,  OLPC project founder Nicholas Negroponte indicated that their next generation XO-2 will almost certainly eschew it's current x86-based design and move towards one that is based on the ARM, the most common embedded RISC architecture in the world. It's used in over a billion cell phones and smartphones, including the iPhone and the BlackBerry, and is licensed for use in embedded CPUs produced by Texas Instruments, Marvell, Broadcom, nVidia, Samsung, and FreeScale, among others.

Click on the "Read the rest of this entry" link below for more.

Now, I know what many of you are probably going to say -- OLPC isn't exactly the most successful project in the world, and on the grand scheme of things, they've had minimal impact on the industry in terms of their ability to ship units. However, the design goals of their devices have very much influenced what has been happening with mobile computing as a overall trend, such as the current netbook revolution. OLPC's fumbles aside, nobody can deny that low power, long battery life and lower cost portables are the future. And the only way that future can be realized is if x86 on mobile systems goes away.

I've been predicting that the x86 was going to disappear for a while, but it never occured to me that the economy was going to be the driving force behind it.

I think it is probably safe to say that the next generation of the Atom chipset, Diamondville, is almost about about as far as the x86 architecture can progress in terms of its ability to conserve wattage and also provide the same balance in CPU horsepower needed for a MID or a general purpose mobile computing device. Right now, for your typical netbook, the total Atom power consumption of CPU + support chips is around 11.8 watts, with the CPU itself consuming about 5 watts. Diamondville's support chipset will consume about 2.5 watts, bringing the total to around 5.5 to 7.5 with CPU depending on whether you use a single core or a dual core Atom chip. And While the Atom support chipset  provides for graphics control and sound, that doesn't include  display, wireless, storage or anything else that is needed to provide a complete mobile platform-- which consume more power.

The reason why x86 cannot progress any further for mobile systems is because of the sheer amount of transistors that have to be put on a die in order to support all the legacy instruction sets for x86 compatibility. With RISC processors, no such compatibility is needed, so less transistors are required and less power is consumed. It also means you don't have to clock the chip as high to achieve good performance with embedded applications.

OLPC has seen the writing on the wall -- RISC. With chips such as the TI OMAP that power BeagleBoard-like devices (which can have complete platforms operate in 2.5-3 watts of power) or the Marvell XScale which also use ARM-based designs, the requirements for power efficiency, manufacturing cost and chipset integration will override the need to use the legacy software base. That being said, new OSes will have to be used on these systems instead of what we use on most of today's destkop computers.

There are two OSes which are well suited to these low-power chips -- Linux (including Google's Android) and Symbian, both of which are Open Source. iPhone OS and Windows Mobile/Windows CE also can be used, but both are proprietary. iPhone OS will never see the light of day on anything other than a device made by Apple, thus limiting the potential market size because whatever Apple makes will never be cheaper than the alternatives, and Windows CE/Windows Mobile is going to need a lot of work for it to become a robust mobile computing platform which would provide near-desktop experiences on a MID.

Certainly, a full-blown Windows port to ARM is not out of the question, but it would be a significant undertaking. Whether Microsoft has fully considered putting that much resources into mobile beyond what it has currently committed for Windows Mobile 7 remains to be seen.

Will the mobile future be a RISC-based one? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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Topics: Processors, Hardware, Mobility


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • At a minimum, Arm will cause big problems for BOTH Intel and Microsoft.

    No, x86 and Windows will not die any time soon, but, low power, lower cost Arm will be hot in the netbook segment starting this year, and that cuts out both Microsoft AND Intel. This will result in a whole new generation of users getting used to Linux and non x86 processors. As seen in the netbook segment, it does not take a very high percentage to force Microsoft to cut prices to the bone, and that is pretty scary for Microsoft. To top it off, it will take a huge effort and a lot of time to get Windows 7 on Arm, and then there will be no applications.
    • But a more likely scenerio

      The proble becomes that Linux may force the demise of ARM based netbooks: people will migrate towards the Windows operating system, which will bolster sales of the Intel Atom chip.

      People base their purchases on how the item works for them, not what electronics run in their products. If they want Windows and it cannot run Windows, they will switch netbooks, not Operating Systems

      Linux may very well be the death of ARM based netbooks.
      • The first time around, you were proved wrong. MS refused to provide an OS

        for netbooks, and the category took off with Linux. MS was forced to bring back XP and give it away to hold back Linux. Still, Linux holds 10% in the netbook market, forcing MS to keep prices low.

        Battery life and price are huge drivers, and will result in a lot of Linux based Arm Netbooks being sold.

        Microsoft will be forced to respond as before, but this time it will not be so easy.
        • It's 30%. 10% is a new talking points FUD.

          [B]Today, 90% of all mini-laptops sold in the US are running Windows. [/B]

          It's amazing isn't it. Can you find a Linux version at Best Buy, Walmart, Target, etc?

          I will believe the horse's mouth on this. Microsoft themselves state it is 70% XP. Here's what Asus has the say, another direct source.

          [B]Shen -- who is keen on Linux -- said Asus had hoped sales of Eee PCs would be 50:50 between XP and Linux, but actually they were 60:40 in XP's favour[/B]

          With Dell 1/3 of netbooks are Ubuntu. I have no data on HP's MEI, that will be telling though. Also, nothing on European sales figures, where demand for Linux on netbooks far exceeds OEM limited supply.

          So, worldwide, Linux is just fine on netbooks, and a major concern for both Microsoft and the Windows enabled ecosystem. Can anyone figure out why Best Buy doesn't carry Linux versions? I;ll give you a hint, it's called the "Geek Squad hard sell".

          Another tidbit on Microsoft not knowing what to do overall, well, discuss amongst yourselves. :D
          [I]Update: Re Vista and the S101, Samson Hu, the Asus vice president in charge of the EPC Business Unit, says: [B]"Microsoft thinks it will impact the notebook market, so they have asked us not to run Vista on it."[/B][/I]

          The concern that netbooks, if left free reign, not with artificial restrictions will absolutely cannibalize other sales is palpable. Nothing like a free an open marketplace right?

          • Yes, there is a lot of FUD being thrown around! To be sure MS does NOT want

            anybody to know how many are using Linux on Netbooks, nor do they want you to know how low they had to go on the price to OEMs to get at least get the market share they have now.

            They are scared stiff of a cheap version Windows 7 without limits cannibalizing full Windows 7 sales. But, they are even more scared of what might happens if Arm based netbooks become popular using Linux. Microsoft has no quick fix for Arm.
        • What first time around?

          The first time around I seem to remeber that [i]you[/i] were teslling people MS was doomed as they'd [b]never[/b] put Windows on a netbook, that Linux was the king.

          Here it is and MS has the lion share of that market, yet again.

          I think GL is right here, that people buy what works for them, not what chips are in a unit.

          If I can;t get a netbook with Windows, I don't get a netbook. If I see one with Windows, I'll buy that model.

          Plus, what does [i]forcing MS to keep prices low[/i] have squat to do about the argument?

          This is about what CPU is in the unit, and what people are buying, not what price/profit MS makes off of each sale.
          • You're so dead on

            but then again, this [i]is[/i] DB you're responding to.

            He HATES anything MS, and when they come out ahead, (like having the "Lion's share of the Netbook market) well, you can bet the DBFUD will start flying in a [b]BIG[/b] way!

            And the change in subject (the price thing, again) is his way of trying to guide you away from the truth.

            John Zern
      • Is that so?

        You <b>do</b> realize that the "argument" you just used makes no sense, don't you?
        InAction Man
  • You are wrong, but not because of your technical facts

    You are wrong because 2.5 - 5watts is low enough for the vast majority of uses.

    Even in the third world, take 2 seconds to consider things. Do we seriously think some half-starved kid is going to need 15 hours uptime on a single charge?


    Slap a solar panel on those things and you are set.

    Well guess what, the Raon Digital Everrun was getting 8-10 hours based on the AMD Geode processor, and the just-released Viliv S5 gets about 6 hours (Intel Atom).

    Both x86. Both suitable for classroom use. Both can run any flavor of Linux or Windows. Both are free of the idiotic Negroponte politics.

    That's kind of the real issue though. Choice. x86 provides all kinds of choice, while the proposed move to ARM is a Negroponte stunt designed to prevent users from chosing Windows if they so want.

    Well, where are the "choice" fanboys when you need them?
    • 4x the battery life, and cheaper at the same performance level will be VERY

      attractive considering what people do with these devices. Add to that an Android version, and MS/Intel will have a hard time holding back the floodgates.
      • Excuse me? Same performance level my butt!

        Compare a cell phone to a notebook computer, even a BARGAIN BASEMENT one.... they do not have the same power, in fact the notebook has 7-10 times the processing power in it. Sure, the battery life is less..... but then again, most times you are NOT doing strenuous computing on a cell phone either.
        Compare an iPhone's battery life to a computer while stressing the processor to 90% of it's capacity near all the time..... your iPhone will die before the notebook does, even when the notebook is on 'High Performance' settings.
        • Clearly

          You have not seen the latest demos of what an OMAP ARM processor can achieve.

          Still convinced it isn't powerful enough?
          • not all that convinced

            There's no question that it's small and efficient, but that's still the slowest I've seen ubuntu run. I assume we're looking forward to faster versions of this chip in the near future?
          • Considerations

            First of all, you're looking at it on a configuration of a beagleboard, which is a developer device that is not optimized for this sort of thing. You're watching Ubuntu and other versions of Linux run off of SD cards which is naturally a much higher I/O latency device than an SSD.


            The device only has 128MB of RAM and 256MB of NAND flash. So considering how wimpy the storage and RAM is on a beagleboard I would say the device demos are extremely impressive. Imagine what you could do with 2GB of RAM and a 32GB SSD. It's not the clock speed of the chip that's the issue. You don't need to clock the chip that high when it's a RISC processor.
          • what about graphics?

            Unless I'm mistaken both Intel and AMD (and Nvidia?) are working on solutions to fold the GPU and CPU onto a single die as a way to dramatically reduce the power consumption of the chipset. How would the ARM platform compare in terms of performance/power consumption?
  • RE: The XO-2 is going Embedded RISC? So will everyone else!

    Not gonna happen. Its going to be the case of OLPC isolating themselves yet again. I have a pretty good feeling they are going to back out on the whole ARM/RISC thing once they realize their customers are not going to go for it. What will this new XO-2 with new design have to offer? Absolutely nothing if they continue with said plans. X86 is going to be around for a long long time, you like the OLPC will be isolated.
    Loverock Davidson
    • I guess the real world...

      Is outside your experience. ARM chips are found everywhere, and are used in huge volumes, they even have something resembling multi-core out there.

      Oh wait, your universe revolves around x86.
      • You've got to give LD props though.

        Normally his arguments are comically pro-MS. Being comically pro-x86 is outside his comfort zone.
        • Ah...

          But to be pro Microsoft is in part to think x86 is all that, and a strawberry cheesecake as well.
  • Linux will continue to drive MS out of their comfort zone.

    MS wanted to ignore the netbook altogether to start, but was forced to respond with an almost free XP when the category took off based on Linux. If not for Linux, MS could make sure that full featured Arm based netbooks never saw the light of day. Linux will force MS to respond. If not for Linux, MS would be able offer a crippled starter version of Win7 for netbooks, with forced upgrades. Because of Linux, MS will be force to take away the restrictions, and still make Win7 almost free for netbooks.

    Competition IS great!!!