We met with Eric Schorn, the VP of marketing, Processor Division at ARM at CES 2011 and after a few minutes, it was clear that ARM was keen not to raise expectations for an early delivery of the Cortex A15.
The announcements at CES 2011 by Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, that Windows 8 will be compatible with ARM-based processors and by Nvidia's Jen-Hsun Huang that its company will build the first high performance ARM core, codenamed Project Denver, has focused even more attention on ARM's execution. Schorn however was quick to highlight the fact that raising expectations doesn't mean that ARM will be changing its long production cycles overnight.
The Cortex A8, on which the iPhone 4 is based, was launched back in October 2005, the Cortex A9 two years later and the Cortex A15, almost five years afterwards.
To put things in perspective, Intel's mainstream processor range back then was still the Pentium (either P4 or Pentium D). This means that one can expect the Cortex A9 to last until at least 2012 before the architecture runs out of steam and is replaced by products based on the Cortex A15.
ARM's impending entry in the desktop and server markets will put pressure on its partners to deliver products at a faster rate, something that we've seen in the x86 market as Intel introduced its famed "tick-tock" model in 2007 to pile more pressure on its only remaining competitor, AMD.
Indeed, they will not only be facing competition from other existing ARM licensees but also from the three other x86 rivals. The first Cortex A9-based products landed in the UK November 2010 (the Toshiba Folio 100) which puts the first Cortex A15 products on the market around Christmas 2013.
As Nvidia has been the first one to release a dual core Cortex A9 processor back in January 2010, it would not be surprising if the Santa Clara company is the first to bring out the Cortex A15 high performance application processor in 2013 (or even earlier).
The face-off between the ARM architecture and x86 will be helped by the combination of four things; ARM's focus on giving as much freedom to its partners (even if, in the case of Qualcomm or Nvidia, it means co-operating on the processor not the graphics unit), the fact that ARM is backed by some of the biggest names in the semiconductor industry giving it access to cutting edge manufacturing process, the fact that the new segments (desktop and server) do not require have strict power requirements (compared to the mobile market) allowing ARM to ramp up speed and core count and lastly, the fact that it now has the official backing of Microsoft who chose the biggest stage of them all to announce their ARM partnership.