Nvidia plan for CPUs marks major disruption in PC processor choices

Stodgy state of chip market upended by tablets, smart devices

In three to five years the market for and suppliers of microprocessors is going to look a LOT different than it does today, if mega shifts by both the manufacturers and their OEM customers are any indication.

Not only did Microsoft demonstrate Windows 8 running on ARM processors yesterday at the Consumer Electronics Show, graphics powerhouse Nvidia announced it will build CPUs that will run that operating system on a range of devices.

The Nvidia chips, code-named Denver, will be a combination of Nvidia's current microprocessors plus central processing cores licensed from tablet- and smartphone-processor king ARM .

Licensing ARM processors saves Nvidia the effort of designing CPU cores itself and, more importantly, makes any Denver-based systems compatible with the ARM version of Windows as well as Android and other non-PC operating systems.

Nvidia didn't announce an availability date, but predicted the first versions will end up in servers, rather than PCs.

Nvidia isn't known for the kind of low-power computing requirements on which ARM has built its reputation, but combining the two approaches is a step toward combination processors for tablets that can handle high-performance graphics without draining the battery as quickly as Nvidia processors normally would.

It also introduces, for the first time, a non-Intel/AMD chipset able to run Windows natively in home or business environments -- making Microsoft's decision to port Windows to ARM an even greater potential disruption to Intel and AMD's business than it would have been otherwise.

Intel, for its part, announced in late December that it is building graphics processing units into its CPU chipsets as a way to deliver lower-power, higher-performance systems, while shutting out competitors such as Nvidia.

AMD plans similar CPU/GPU combinations.

The changes in both technology and the competitive landscape are made possible by the ability of all three chip vendors to build more cores and modules into the same chipsets.

They are being driven by the consumerization of technology and demand by consumers for cheaper, more convenient, more powerful computer-enabled capabilities that can be available wherever they are and whenever they want it.

That demand is the same whether end users are talking about smarter, smaller phones, handier tablets, lighter notebooks, or more intelligence and network connections in devices completely unrelated to IT -- TVs, audio equipment, cars and nearly any other device that can have a processor squeezed into it, in the kitchen, the gym, the outdoors or the nursery.

Intel and AMD have had the PC market to themselves until now, just as Nvidia has been able to dominate the discrete-GPU market since AMD bought ATi in 2006.

There are a lot of other companies out there able to build low-power processors, though. With market changes as big as those going on now, there are opportunities for all of them to acquire, engineer or market themselves into new positions that will disrupt the stodgy status quo in the chip market and will probably give customers more power for less money.

Other than the tit-for-tat GPU competition between Intel and Nvidia, that may not have a huge impact on IT this year. If you're planning for non-PC form factors for end users or smarter equipment for your supply chain, manufacturing or distribution networks, though, the variety of hardware platforms and chips on which they run is going to get much, much wider.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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