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Welcome to our September Tech Update. This month’s edition includes news on processor giants, anniversaries for Linux and Windows 10 operating systems, Apple’s latest announcements, and the emergence of custom assembled devices and custom designed.
The CPU market is generally a game of two players – Intel dominate the datacentre and desktop, and ARM based devices lead the way in mobile and embedded systems. Cambridge based ARM recently announced a deal to be bought by SoftBank, who are using the cash gained from selling stakes in Alibaba and Supercell. At $32Bn it's not cheap, and eclipses the last big truck of money to come into Cambridge, when HP bought Autonomy.
However, perhaps more interesting than the acquisition is the news from Intel's annual developer forum (I presume my invite once again was lost in the post), that Intel will be using its fabrication capacity to build ARM chips for the first time. These artisan chips will be on Intel's 10nm process, and reflects a change in direction from Intel, courting outsiders into its fabs. The first customer may well be LG, with others to follow in due course. Intel might finally get a foothold in the mobile market, just not in the way they may have hoped.
Now the elephant in the room here is AMD, who have seen their market share in enterprise x86 dwindle to near zero over the past years, save for in specialist areas. Their long- promised comeback in the form of the Zen Microarchitecture has now started to break cover, and it appears that they've made some big steps. AMD have released benchmarks against a Broadwell Core i7 CPU which appear favourable towards the Zen chip, but until it hits the market true performance is anyone's guess. It's worth keeping an eye on Zen however, as most major OEMs are lined up to offer the chips in end user and server devices, so watch this space for more news.
Recently the IT world has celebrated two big anniversaries, the biggest of which is the silver anniversary of every nerd's most beloved OS, Linux. It is indeed 25 years since a student in Finland asked for ideas to add to his new operating system that, to quote that email, is 'just a hobby' and 'won't be big and professional like gnu'. Today, Linux has become the standard bearer of open source software and powers billions of devices worldwide. Linux has reached new audiences with the rise in embedded systems, and its place at the heart of Android. The flexibility of the platform has seen a vast array of deployments (the sheer number of distros can be seen here) and use cases. Linux is more popular than ever, with Microsoft working on its own version and integrating Bash into Windows 10. Is this the start of the fabled 'year of Linux on the desktop'? No. But as software eats the world, the next 25 years of Linux will be an even wilder ride than the first 25.
Speaking of the desktop, Windows 10 has turned one year old, and to celebrate Microsoft have unveiled its 'anniversary update' which in the brave new world of one Windows to rule them all is roughly analogous to a service pack. Microsoft are keen to listen to feedback from the community on such things, and have expanded clever features such as Windows Hello, Cortana and the Edge browser. The cornerstones of this have been based around productivity, security, and unification, with features bleeding across desktop, mobile and Xbox. The focuses of this update further shows the extent to which Satya Nadella has stamped his authority on the company, the direction of travel being markedly different to the Ballmer/Sinofsky approach. With rumours doing the rounds of a possible 'surface phone' as well, there is a bit of something for everyone coming out of the door at Redmond.
Recently, all eyes were on Apple as they held their keynote event on the 7th of September for their latest announcements.
Amongst all of this news the one that has picked up the most column inches is that Apple has done what was rumoured and removed the 3.5mm headphone jack. Apple's decision to sacrifice the 3.5mm jack was the best way to get more real estate inside the device and also helps them to achieve an IP rating for water/dust ingress.
Apple's answer to wireless audio is £150, and are called 'Airpods'. They look familiar (especially if you own an electric toothbrush), but under the hood they are using custom silicon to hook into Siri, detect voice, filter ambient noise, and pair with the phone with a single tap.
This custom silicon approach also stretches to the camera, where Apple have hired former Nokia employees (the ones responsible for the 808 Pureview) and given them free reign to design the chips.
This highlights an interesting split in the market between custom assembled devices and custom designed, and stretches from consumer through to the datacentre. We are told that hardware is now commodity, with a handful of manufacturers (Intel, Samsung, Broadcom et.al) responsible for the parts, and OEMs simply assembling and adding software. But elsewhere, products like HPE 3PAR, Pure's upcoming Flashblade, much of Cisco's datacentre switching, and Business Critical Systems from HPE, Oracle, Fujtsu and IBM all to a greater or lesser extent use custom silicon. This may be in the form of ASICs, FPGAs, CPUs or other chips, but the overriding story is clear – the differentiation is in software, but it is often the hardware that enables this.
This innovation doesn't come cheap though, and you need either Apple level scale or Enterprise level prices. As standards open up and competition is away from raw speeds and feeds, we are seeing an increasing split between commoditised and custom. Whether it's Google with plans to differentiate their Pixel phones (launching in October) or datacentre startups solving problems with a portion of chips, this philosophical split is more pronounced than ever.
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