December 9, 2021

How The Power-Efficient Approach Pioneered By Mobile Companies Will Drive The Future Of Technology

Founder & Principal of Tantra Analyst, a tech industry consulting firm, with 20+ years of experience...

Founder & Principal of Tantra Analyst, a tech industry consulting firm, with 20+ years of experience working for Qualcomm, Ericsson & AT&T.

Undoubtedly, our future is being driven by technology. The pervasive smartphone experience has programmed many in the “mobile-first” generation to expect almost everything to be untethered, mobile and in many cases autonomous, be it augmented reality/virtual reality headsets, vacuum cleaners, vehicles or machines in factories. I believe all of these will be powered by the same technologies and solutions that drove the spectacular growth of the mobile industry — connectivity, processors (SoCs), touchscreens, cameras and more.

That means battery life — and in turn, power consumption — becomes the fundamental consideration for creating that future. And I believe the power-efficient approach espoused by the mobile industry is key to winning that power-constrained future. 

Mobile-first experiences will define the future of technology and society.

Today, over 6 billion people have smartphones, and they have become almost a basic need for every age group to work, live and play. For many people, smartphones and apps are the interfaces to the world, be it socialization, media, commerce or anything else. Naturally, their smartphone or mobile-first experiences are shaping and defining their future technological experiences and expectations. And this influence is not just limited to people, it is even more so to the industry. In many ways, the famed Industry 4.0, the next industrial revolution, is defined by many characteristics of mobile-first experience and technologies.

So, what are these characteristics? App-driven intuitive touch or gesture interfaces that hide all the complexity from the users, access to everything at the touch of a finger, no matter where you are, even millions of miles away on the other side of the planet. Most importantly — always connected and always ON.

Low power consumption is going to be the basic need.

The applications, services and workloads of the future will require increasingly higher computing performance. But the performance has to be scaled up while keeping the power consumption to a minimum. So, power efficiency will be the basic need. I think this will also permanently change the computing industry’s historical approach of measuring processing capability from just “performance” to “performance per watt.” 

If you are thinking this is an exaggeration and sensationalizing only one aspect of the system, consider some of these next-generation use cases:

Automotives are being transformed from mechanical machines into electro-mechanical gadgets driven by processors and software. Electrification and autonomous are the future, where almost everything is run by processors and powered by batteries. As you can imagine, how much power processors consume defines the vehicle performance, i.e., the range.

Future factories will be run by untethered robots — but if the processors and technologies that run them are not power-efficient and require heavy batteries or frequent charging, you can imagine the loss in productivity it can cause. If there are no power-efficient solutions, the vision of Industry 4.0 would be impossible to realize.

Even beyond mobile and untethered realms, low-power consumption is relevant to industries such as the cloud and data centers. The energy consumption of modern server farms has become a major environmental issue, and the industry has been forced to look at solutions that are power efficient. The move toward edge-cloud, where the installations are inherently space- and energy-limited, will further necessitate this trend.

In summary, no matter what industry you are in, performance per watt will be the focus.

What does it take to win?

Many companies have realized that pivoting from a performance to performance-per-watt philosophy requires a fundamental change and an architectural realignment. There is a lot to learn from the mobile industry on power efficiency. Since its very inception, it has built and evolved power-efficient technologies. It started with 3G, which made voice untethered and mobile. 4G made data untethered and mobile. And now, 5G is making everything untethered and mobile, all of this with more than full-day battery life.

The meteoric rise of smartphones and the mobile industry’s path is full of companies that unsuccessfully tried to address power consumption as an afterthought. In my experience, the power-efficient approach has to start from the very concept and run through the full life cycle of any product or system. Every part, every feature, every enhancement must be designed for an optimal power envelope.

When it comes to processors, this means having well-rounded SoCs with heterogeneous architecture so that you use the right processor for the right workload, along with intelligent power management solutions to orchestrate them.

Another key consideration is the compute micro-architecture. Traditionally, there have been two dominant options: Intel’s x86 and Arm. x86 was primarily focused on performance, not power, and Arm on power consumption, not performance. Both are evolving and trying to overcome their deficiencies. In my opinion, Arm seems to be still in a better position in terms of power consumption. There are also new, open architectures such as RISC-V on the horizon. Whichever architecture offers the best performance-per-watt metric will likely win.

Finally, consider the connectivity block. Since 5G will likely be the primary connectivity fabric, complemented by Wi-Fi, having extremely efficient modems and well-integrated RF solutions will be extremely important.

Who is best positioned to win?

In my opinion, dominant mobile SoC players such as Qualcomm, Apple, Samsung and others are extremely well-positioned. (Disclosure: Qualcomm is a customer of my company.) How these companies keep their competitive edge over others will decide who wins and by how much. Major processor players have already started their pivot toward heterogeneous architectures — CPU behemoth Intel is developing their GPU and NPUs, and the GPU major Nvidia is developing CPUs and even looking to acquire Arm. How that pivot will play out in the market remains to be seen. The cloud players such as Google, Amazon and Microsoft have long ago realized the importance of power efficiency and are moving toward designing workload-specific SoCs. It’s still early days, but, ultimately, the ones that excel in power-efficient computing will win.


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