The rise of Netbooks, of which 21 million units* will be sold in 2009, may put in jeopardy the progression of Moore’s Law, as netbooks cannibalize sales of laptops. As a result of Moore’s Law, the price of a mid-range PC has not changed much since long, but every year the power of the machine you buy doubles the one available a year before. This exponential growth in performance can be easily tracked in the amount of storage that you get each year for a $25 SD card (8GB in 2008 vs 4GB in 2007) or for a $100 hard drive (1TB in 2008 vs 500GB in 2007). For microprocessors the rule is shifting from doubling clock speed, to doubling the number of cores every 12-18 months. This geometrical progression results in a laptop in 2018 with 256 cores and 32 TB solid-state drive.
Nebooks are driving Moore’s Law in a different direction. A Netbook has the power of a PC of 3-4 years ago, just at a fraction of the cost. And the reason netbooks replace laptops is that they can run the same basic applications that most people use: web browsing, email, writing docs or Skype. Although conceived as an ideal second ultraportable computer for road warriors, netbooks could become the prime PC for basic use in the office and at home for many in these times of recession.
Software, and in particular Windows, have driven the evolution of the PC hardware with “hungrier” software versions every few years. But Vista failed to bring any breakthrough features compared to Windows XP, and netbooks are benefiting from that.
What do software developers have in their roadmaps that will need 256 cores in ten years? Video editing, media encoding or photo processing software need powerful CPUs, but unless the future bring us an OS with disruptive user interfaces with 3D virtual reality, HD, plus voice and gesture detection, it is difficult to imagine why we will need 256 cores in a laptop or desktop PC.
What is sure is that Multi-Core CPUs fit nicely with server virtualization, and that will make data centers which host the cloud more cost-efficient. The demand for multi-core processors for servers will sure drive the CPU market, but will it be able to do it at the same pace as desktops were doing before? If we are to believe in the success of the cloud, not only the value is shifting from the OS to the Cloud, also the demand for stronger processors is.
We could well end up in 2018 with 256-core servers in the data centers and ultra small low-cost dual-core devices in our pockets connected to the cloud.
Intel could report soon the first quarterly loss in 21 years. Even if they say Atom margins are similar to those of the high-end processors, there is always the doubt if cannibalization has anything to do with the loss. On the other side AMD says they will not address the market for netbook processors, instead putting all eggs on the high-end CPUs that will power cloud servers. Will we see the 256-core CPUs somewhere else than in servers?