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An ARM to stand on?

There is something happening in the PC world that could be utterly revolutionary.

You may have heard that Microsoft is working with Qualcomm to run Windows 10 on ARM chips. ARM is the current rival to all that is Intel. In a way it has always been - ARM is the latest incarnation of RISC, the chips that fought Intel since the 1980s and were once the favourite of Apple and IBM. While Intel focused on PCs, ARM architecture slipped into the mobile world. Now, with the help of Microsoft, it's going straight for the PC landscape.

So what? AMD has been there before and Intel still reigns supreme. PCs are still PCs. The world is still a sphere. All continues as before.

Not quite. ARM has two big advantages. It's VERY power efficient - so much so that testers of the new Windows ARM machines would initially report the battery icon as broken, because it appeared to drain too slowly. Since then claims have arisen that ARM machines are providing days, not hours, of battery life.

Let that sink in: you can take your laptop with you for the day and not need to charge it at all.

The second advantage is ARM's pedigree in LTE technology. Qualcomm's LTE chips in particular are regarded leagues ahead of what rivals offer.

Together these two define the potential of Always Connected PCs. The form factor is a PC made to match smartphones. It's always connected through virtual SIMs built into the machines, and these systems thrive on LTE and are seen as a move away from Wi-Fi dependence.

I don't want to get too excited about this and, as a tech executive recently told me, this kind of hype is not new. Still, between a PC industry begging for a new lease on life and an emerging technology standard that will hugely boost battery performance, this looks like a big deal.

The cherry on top, though, is Microsoft porting Windows 10 to ARM. Not a ‘lite' version or some misguided attempt such as Windows RT. No, this is the full-blooded Windows, running x86 emulation to ensure that anything you can run on an Intel PC will work on an ARM Windows 10 machine.

If this seems interesting, you are not alone. Intel is already threatening to sue, claiming the emulation violates its patents.

China will also get into this game. It is already home to many manufacturers of cheaper laptops. Adopting ARM systems will both save them money and boost their performance profile, all while not raising their competitively low prices. If this plays out well, the adoption of ARM into the Windows PC world could be a new epoch.

But South Africans may not be equipped to take advantage of that. Other than the few who can afford LTE data prices, everyone else will be left behind. Their old PCs will become increasingly useless, their emancipation through digital services will stall.

If I had Minister of Communications Mmamoloko Kubayi's ear, I'd advise her to pay very close attention to these trends and to realise they are all interconnected. The delay on digital migration is akin to a country refusing to build roads because it doesn't see the value of cars. Time is not on our side.

Relying on institutional memory has only dug a deeper hole for us. IT professionals are taking jobs at private companies and then leaving in droves as international interests nab them for their talents. Already it is not hard to hear government managers complain that they can't seem to attract good IT skills. We are moving from a technology brain drain to risking no technology brain at all. If even PCs will eventually stop working in SA, that's the writing on the wall.

When Belshazzar ignored that writing, Babylon fell to Cyrus the Great. But it didn't fall because of the writing. It fell because Belshazzar stopped seeing the context of his situation. Progress is not inevitable. Many nations get left behind all the time.


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