CES: ARM CEO on Microsoft, tech's rise (Q&A)

CES 2011 may be remembered as marking the year that ARM eclipsed Intel, according to Warren East, the U.K. chip designer's chief executive.

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
Brooke Crothers
3 min read
ARM CEO Warren East.
ARM CEO Warren East. Brooke Crothers

LAS VEGAS--The 2011 Consumer Electronics Show may be remembered as marking the year that a small U.K. chip designer began to eclipse the largest chipmaker in the world--that would be Intel, of course.

Warren East, chief executive of ARM, sat down with CNET for a few minutes at CES on Thursday to discuss some of the seismic events that took place at CES centered on ARM.

A flurry of big announcements put the ARM chip architecture front and center this year. Those include Microsoft's intention to move its next major release of Windows to ARM, Nvidia's plans to develop high-performance ARM processors based on a new architecture license with ARM, and Motorola's demonstration of a new tablet and high-end smartphones based on ARM chips.

Q: What is the impact of the Microsoft announcement?
East: I've been confidently saying over the last couple of years [that] we're going to have a massive market share in Internet-connected devices with or without Microsoft. Certainly with Microsoft, we're going to have a bigger share. I can't tell how much bigger because it depends how successful compared with some of their competitors. But I can be absolutely certain that Microsoft is going to achieve some significant market share.

What does Microsoft have to do to make Windows successful on ARM in your opinion?
East: They've got to think about the user experience. And make sure it's a competitive user experience. If part of the problem with the user experience is that it takes too long for anything to happen, people are going to get frustrated and [Microsoft] won't achieve the market share that others have.

When you did start talking to Microsoft?
East: We've been working with Microsoft for about 13 years. It would be ludicrous for me to sit here and deny that we've been trying to persuade Microsoft to do something like this for many years.

How difficult is it to move to a different chip platform?
East: It is actually quite a difficult decision for Microsoft to make. It's a very expensive exercise to make Windows and everything else that goes with it run on on a different architecture. The operating system is relatively easy. It's all of the other things that go with it. Device drivers and all of those other things.

And Microsoft announced a chip architecture license last summer, too?
East: We were amazed when they announced the architecture deal in the summer. [Microsoft signed an ARM architecture license.] They actually wanted to announce it. We thought we'd have to announce it. Potentially very sensitive for us. But they actually wanted to announce it. I think they want the world to know that's where they're going so they can bring the ecosystem over and people like Epson will write printer drivers [for ARM.]

And Nvidia is now a big ARM player?
East: Look at what Jen-Hsun [CEO of Nvidia, which is supplying ARM processors to tablet makers such as Motorola and Toshiba] said. He said we'll remember CES 2011 as when the computing world changed. I do feel a certain amount of responsibility now. Nvidia really bet the company on ARM.

Can ARM make it on the desktop and in bigger computers?
East: This is the ARM business model working. The technology is totally scalable [up to the desktop and supercomputing]. [Nvidia's] Tegra is a high-octane version but it's still basically a smartphone chip. What [Huang] was talking about yesterday was going a lot further. They're demonstrating that they're going to extend the ARM world.

What makes the ARM such a power efficient chip design?
East: It's the simplicity of the design. It's a RISC design. What dissipates power is transistors switching. If you've got less transistors switching (ARM), you have lower power consumption.