PCs to Carry Side-ARMs: How ARM Will Impact PC Market

By Jack E. Gold  |  Posted 2009-10-28

PCs to Carry Side-ARMs: How ARM Will Impact PC Market

Dell recently announced Latitude ON, a feature first made available on its new Z notebook and on select E-series, but to be made available on most Latitudes going forward. Its primary mission is to allow "instant on" access to e-mail, calendar and the Web without requiring full boot-up of the machine. This is similar to Microsoft's Windows SideShow, first made available in Vista but which never went anywhere.

But the features of Latitude ON take it well beyond SideShow's, which required not only a peripheral processor but also a secondary LCD screen. Latitude ON runs a peripheral processor, in this case an ARM-based chip from Texas Instruments, with a Linux operating system kernel and a Citrix Receiver client for application enablement (while also allowing administrators to securely access the machine resources).

It runs a version of the Firefox browser for Web surfing and provides direct connection to Exchange, GroupWise or IMAP/POP3 e-mail systems through direct memory access. Also included is a dedicated document viewer for Word, Excel, PowerPoint and PDF files, dedicated Wi-Fi and a VPN for secure connectivity. In essence, what Dell has done with Latitude ON is provide an embedded "smartphone-lite" device that uses the main screen, keyboard, power and memory systems.

Latitude ON provides an interesting example of what can be added to machines to extend user convenience for relatively small cost. It's included on Z and is a $199 option on E4200 and E4300, but we estimate the additional cost to Dell to be $50 to $70.

However, this capability is not new. Lenovo has offered a similar ARM-based coprocessor system for about six months, albeit as an add-on Express Card compared to Dell's built-onto-the-motherboard approach. Lenovo's Constant Connect function is similar to Latitude ON but uses a connection via Bluetooth to a BlackBerry for e-mail, and Constant Protect is a security-related enhancement that adds Yoggie System's firewall and anti-malware/intrusion protection capabilities to monitor all incoming and outgoing traffic.

Low-Cost, Low-Power, ARM-Based Chips

Low-cost, low-power, ARM-based chips

What makes the Dell and Lenovo approach interesting is that first, they utilize low-cost, low-power, ARM-based chips adapted from the smartphone industry. Second, they provide dedicated-function processing. And third, each subsystem is capable of being functionally extended, possibly even by third parties through a future API to include additional convenience and protection capabilities.

It is safe to assume that other manufacturers will follow suit and provide coprocessor subsystem in business and higher-end consumer machines-particularly as prices for ARM chips continue to fall. It is also highly likely that additional functionality will be added over time.

Finally, it is apparent that neither Windows nor x86 will be the preferred platforms utilized by these coprocessor subsystems-at least until x86 can match the low cost and low power of ARM (potentially with future Atom chips).

The bottom line: With the potential of one or more coprocessors per PC, ARM has a lucrative path in which to infiltrate the PC market-a market it has never impacted. While it's unlikely that ARM will displace x86 for the core processor anytime soon, it nevertheless gives ARM a large potential market of many millions of units-a fact not lost on ARM licensees (for example, Texas Instruments, Freescale, Qualcomm and Samsung).

However, the coprocessing subsystems potentially offer another point of machine failure and/or instability, especially in corporate settings where consistency, security and device management is critical. Companies should be careful when and how to deploy these coprocessor-enabled systems until they prove their worth.

Jack E. Gold is the founder and Principal Analyst at J. Gold Associates, an IT analyst firm based in Northborough, Mass., covering the many aspects of business and consumer computing and emerging technologies. Jack is a former VP of research services at the META Group. He has over 35 years experience in the computer and electronics industries. He can be reached at jack.gold@jgoldassociates.com.

Rocket Fuel