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Time for Apple rivals to chance their ARM

Analysis Ipad is not such a hard act to beat
Fri Jan 29 2010, 15:57

THE UNVEILING of Apple's Ipad pushed up shares in two British companies on the assumption that their technology was used in the device, namely Imagination and ARM.

Its integrated graphics engine is believed to be based on a design from Imagination Technology, in which Apple has a 9.5 per cent stake. Of wider significance is the near certainty, given that the Ipad can run most Iphone software, that its Apple-designed system-on-a-chip (SoC) uses a processor core based on chips designed by ARM - or at least one using the ARM instruction set.

ARM was being very coy about this after the launch, refusing to confirm or deny that its technology was used. What is certain is that a lot of other companies have been developing tablets using ARM-based SoCs and they have been waiting to see what Apple comes up with. Now they know what they are up against - and is it really such a hard act to beat?

Steve Jobs did his usual superlative salesman number, giving the impression that all good things come only from Apple. For the record, Apple is hardly the originator here. Acorn did an experimental electronic tablet newspaper in the early nineties; Natsemi dedicated an entire stand to what it called webpads, identical in concept to the Ipad, a decade ago at Comdex. Microsoft has been plugging tablets for almost as long.

The Ipad's ten-hour battery life is about par for an ARM device, particularly one weighing 680g. We cannot yet gauge the performance of the Apple SoC but it has some strong competition in Qualcomm's Snapdragon, Nvidia's Tegra2, Freescale's iMX series, and TI's OMAP family - all ARM based. Apple could have an edge in that it has tailored its SoC to a particular device rather than to a generic one; we will not know until we have products to compare.

The IPad is a brilliant design, as you would expect from Apple, but also typically shows symptoms of form overriding function. There is no on-board USB port, only a proprietary connector for a docking station; it comes with a USB adapter, but you will have to remember to carry that around with you. And there is no wired network port, so you are stuck with capricious 3G if you hit a hotel with no WiFi - assuming you have paid $130 extra for the model with 3G.

The Apple press release stresses the fact that the battery should retain 80 percent of its capacity after 1,000 recharge cycles, but omits to say whether it has be replaced by an expensive transplant requiring a skilled surgeon like some other devices from the company.

So there seems little on the hardware front that Ipad rivals could not match or improve on. Apple's big advantage lies in the software base, services and market momentum it can carry over from its smaller devices. Whether a jumped-up Iphone interface will work in a larger format remains to be seen, though there seems no reason why it shouldn't when people are doing the kind of task the Iphone does well.

As Steve Jobs pointed out at the launch, people are not going to lug around a larger device if it does nothing they can't do on a smaller one. The bigger screen is better for browsing, reading, and viewing still and moving images but these activities can be done on an Iphone, albeit less comfortably. With current screen technology, e-readers with their bi-stable displays are better for prolonged reading and can be bought for half the price of the Ipad.

The large format becomes an imperative if it enables a device to function as a working platform, or more generally as one on which you can express yourself freely without being hampered by the technology. For people like myself, who believe that the tablet will develop into the definitive early 21st computing device (though not necessarily now), this is what qualifies a design as mature.

The Iphone, a delivery platform with rudimentary input, does not qualify. The Ipad does, by virtue of what looks like a fairly usable soft keyboard and an optional combined keyboard/dock. It hardly looks like something you would want to write War and Peace on, but we shall have to see.

It should be judged against the best design for a working tablet to date, which came from Microsoft more than half a decade ago and was epitomised by the Samsung Q1 in 2006. This was constrained by the technology of the day, with less powerful and more thirsty hardware, and it lacked Apple's innovative multi-touch interface. But it weighed only 780g, and could do just about everything the Ipad can do, plus handwriting recognition with support for speech recognition. You could do serious work on it.

Wintel, with more frugal Atom processors and an even greater software base than Apple, still cannot be ruled out of the tablet race. But ARM-based tablets are more exciting because they offer a chance to break from the mindset of 20th-century computing.

MSI is ready to launch a Tegra-based model that will probably run the Google-backed Android operating system; Acer is also said to have an ARM-based product in the pipeline. More tablets will be on show at next month's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, as samples and reference designs if not as shipping products.

They might lack the glamour and momentum of Apple products but there is no reason the Ipad cannot be beaten on features and price. Apple's walled garden approach, trying to lock users and content providers into its online sales machine, could finally backfire in face of more open competition, allowing the Ipad hype to boost the sales of rival machines.

Although Apple had tried a tablet once before with the ill-fated Newton more than a decade ago and abandoned the product after it didn't catch on, it might be right in returning to the format only lately, because only now is the technology and infrastructure up to doing the job half-way properly. The big question, ironically, is whether Apple has brought out the Ipad too early. The enabling technology, from large components like displays down to details like screen texture, still has a long way to go before the tablet format can fully live up to its promise. µ




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