The future of mobile internet devices

According to VIA, the most famous MID to use a VIA processor is the OQO e2 – although some people might refer to that as a UMPC rather than a MID. In its various configurations it runs Windows Vista Ultimate or Premium and Windows XP Professional and Tablet Edition. It's said to be a full PC in every way and includes Wi-Fi, 2G and 3G connectivity. Other MID devices are being developed around VIA's ultra mobile processor platforms, but have not yet been announced.

With ARM's somewhat broader definition of the term MID, the company claims the Nokia N810 (especially the WiMax edition that is at present only available in the US) and the Apple iPod Touch as two high volume MIDs using their processor cores. Morris went on to suggest that the Nokia Maemo operating system is the 'father' of Moblin (an Intel-supported project for developing open-source software for MIDs using Linux) because a large percentage of it is based on the same code.

With an eye to the future, we asked each company how MID processors will develop in the short term, what trends are likely to emerge and what, if any, relevant upcoming products have been announced. Intel cited an uncertainty of how the Internet will evolve as a justification for being somewhat vague about plans in this area beyond the next couple of years.

Nevertheless, Kedia committed to continue to deliver high performance and low power while maintaining full software and internet compatibility, whatever that might mean in practice. In the mid-term, though, a second platform, codenamed Moorestown and based on Intel Atom processors, is scheduled for release by 2010. The first Atom processors reduced peak power by a factor of 10 compared to the first UMPC platforms, and Moorestown is expected to reduce idle power by a similar amount.

VIA's Brown stressed low-level features, such as more advanced manufacturing processes, decreased package sizes, lower power consumption and even more features integrated onto smaller platforms. As an example he mentioned the 75mm by 45mm VIA mobile-ITX prototype demonstrated in June 2007, which also includes a mobile phone module. He thought it probable that such developments would result in x86- based MIDs with smartphone features during 2009.

ARM's Morris painted a picture of the future that centred on two areas – processors and graphics. In the realm of processors, Morris indicated that a number of ARM11 products (of which the Cortex-A8 is the first member) will enter the market within the next 12 months. He predicted net performance gains of four to five times the speed of currently available products, resulting from a doubling of the clock and processor efficiencies.

Morris' mention of graphics was somewhat surprising, since our questions had all related to processor technology. However, ARM's vision of the future sees a marriage of the processor and GPU. Indeed, ARM partners are already developing application processors for the MID market with high-performance 3D and video engines for improved response times and HD video. For more information on this, see the 'CPU Meets GPU' box.

Unlike the market for PC processors, which in recent years has been a two-horse race (albeit with one horse a tad lame), the processor wars that are looming in the MID arena show signs of having three healthy players. And with AMD and Nvidia entering the frame with the novel new approach of combing CPU and GPU on the one chip, the battlefield could become even more complicated. Will one architecture dominate? Or, as ARM's Morris suggests, is there room for a number of different approaches? Whatever the result, there are undoubtedly some interesting times ahead.