A Major Tectonic Shift away from Arm to RISC-V may be in the works for Qualcomm, Samsung, Google, Nvidia and Apple
In September 2021, Patently Apple posted a report titled "Apple is Reportedly Designing Various Embedded Subsystems across all Operating Systems using RISC-V." The report noted that "With Apple designing their own mobile and PC processors, the company is now exploring and developing various embedded subsystems across all Operating Systems using RISC-V. The emerging Open Source RISC-V architecture is now being used by companies like Nvidia, Google, Oculus, Qualcomm, Rambus and others for IoT devices to supercomputers, smartwatches and autonomous vehicles. Amazon and Alibaba are currently designing their own cloud and data center chips. Recently Apple was shown to be recruiting RISC-V "high-performance programmers."
While most techies are aware of RISC-V, a video below provides an overview of RISC-V for those unfamiliar with this open standard instruction set architecture.
A group of big tech companies are known to now be working against Softbank's Arm, that is used by Apple and others for advanced mobile processors. Today we're learning that Samsung, Google, Intel, Qualcomm and "others" are promoting the use of RISC-V.
Yesterday, Samsung announced that it would serve as a steering board member of the RISC-V Software Ecosystem (RISE), an open source software development project launched by the nonprofit Linux Foundation. RISE is an organization launched to develop software using RISC-V. Participants include global IT and semiconductor giants such as Samsung Electronics, Google, Intel, Nvidia, and Qualcomm.
RISC-V has been evaluated as the best alternative for companies looking to leave ARM. Founded in 2010 by researchers at UC Berkeley, RISC-V is able to produce semiconductors with similar performances to those of ARM chips. But it can decrease chip areas by about 50 percent and chip power consumption by 60 percent. Best of all, because RISC-V is open source, no one company can own semiconductor design assets like ARM does. Therefore, it requires no licensing fees. For these reasons, IT and semiconductor companies have been promoting RISC-V as an alternative.
RISC-V is yielding positive tangible results. Qualcomm began loading its Snapdragon 865 with a RISC-V microcontroller in 2019. So far, it has shipped about 650 million RISC-V cores for mobile devices, automobiles, and IoT applications. Google expressed its hope that RISC-V will become an Android tier 1 platform like ARM.
The rise in use of RISC-V could dramatically increase over the next two years. Softbank's ARM is about to go public in an effort to boost its profitability. The company is reportedly considering charging a license fee per device instead of per chip. Devices are more expensive than chips, so applying the same percentage to devices for license fees will be able to generate much more revenue for ARM than applying it to chips.
More importantly, ARM also plans to force companies to use only ARM designs starting from 2024. For example, Samsung uses an ARM design and AMD’s graphics core to make Exynos chips for smartphones but will not be able to do so in the future. This was known during ARM’s lawsuit against Qualcomm.
The Korean article leaves us hanging. Will Samsung Electronics, Google, Intel, Nvidia, and Qualcomm announce a new consortium promoting RISC-V? We began our report pointing to Apple working on RISC-V systems as well. Will Apple work independently on RISV-C based processors? Will they silently join this possible new consortium? Or will they work out a better deal with ARM considering that other big tech companies will be curbing and eventually stopping their use of Arm architectures in the future.
This is another mega trend to stay on top of. Will Qualcomm's next-gen Oryon chip designed to take on Apple's M and A Series processors use RISC-V to decrease chip areas by about 50 percent and reduce chip power consumption by 60 percent? Was the delay of the Qualcomm chip from their NUVIA team due to their ongoing court battle with Softbank's Arm? And more importantly, did this nasty court battle push Qualcomm to switch to RISC-V for their Oryon processor?
With Apple, Samsung Electronics, Google, Intel, Nvidia and Qualcomm known to be working on RISC-V systems, we could see a major tectonic shift away from Arm in the not too distant future if Arm executes on the policies that they've laid out.
We may learn more about Qualcomm's Oryon architecture later this year or at CES 2024. At that point we'll know if Qualcomm made the shift to RISC-V or not. If they have made the shift, then it's likely to set off a major industry wide ripple effect.
Apple's past major shifts occurred when they shifted away from the Motorola-IBM PowerPC to Intel's x86 architecture and then from x86 architecture to their own M-Series processors to power Macs and iPads. Apple has used Arm-based processor from the start for the iPhone. A shift to RISC-V would be a major undertaking and it's unknown at this time if Apple could make this kind of shift to RISC-V for the iPhone. Unlike Qualcomm's Oryon that's a new chip architecture from scratch, it could be a much harder shift for Apple that has a massive device base. Then again, never underestimate what Apple is capable of.
In the end, the Korea article seemed to be a sort of alarm bell signifying that a major tectonic shift was in-the-making. We'll know soon enough it actually materializes.
Related Past Report May 2022: Apple is Suing Rivos, a RISC V startup, for Violation of the Trade Secrets Act due to Former Engineers Stealing Sensitive Chip Technology+