ARM is at war with Qualcomm. If he wins, the entire foundation of the industry will shake.

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In the world of mobile processors, arm is king. A slightly peculiar king who until now did and let do. That strategy has worked so far, but the industry is under serious threat. Why? We count it.

ARM designs and licenses, but does not manufacture. The British company licenses chip designs (for example, CPU or GPU cores) to companies like Qualcomm, who use those “blocks” as if they were LEGO pieces to develop and manufacture the SoCs we use in our mobile devices.

two licenses. To date the company offered two types of licenses. The first, called the ARM Technology License (ATL), allows those designs to be used and whoever uses them pays for those “blueprints,” plus a royalty for each chip distributed. The second is the ARM Architectural License (AAL), which allows companies to design their own CPU cores using the ARM instruction set. That gives much more control to those who license those designs, while also paying a smaller royalty for each distributed component.

RISC-V vs. ARM and x86: the dawn of custom processors is Open Source

ARM sues Qualcomm. in september ARM sued Qualcomm and Nuvia for violation of license and trademark agreements. At Qualcomm they wanted to develop ARM processors using the CPU core designs they got through the Nuvia acquisition. According to ARM, they did not have permission for it.

Qualcomm countersues ARM. Qualcomm has not stood idly by, and has sued turn to ARM. The documents that have reached the courts are partially public, and what they have revealed is disturbing.

ARM gets (very) greedy. as they explained in Semi-AnalysisARM plans not to license its CPU designs to companies like Qualcomm: will only license device manufacturersso that the world’s Samsung, Xiaomi or OnePlus would have to negotiate with ARM and license the use of processors based on ARM technology, something that until now had been covered by buying Qualcomm chips.

wait, there’s more. In that countersuit it is also indicated that chipmakers will not be able to mix external elements in their SoCs. Traditionally Qualcomm (or MediaTek) used an ARM CPU and GPU, but then added their own NPU or their own ISP, which differentiated those designs. With ARM’s new philosophy, they couldn’t.

Sea change in the industry. If what Qualcomm claims in its lawsuit is true, the implications for the industry would be gigantic. The change from licensing to chip manufacturers to licensing to device manufacturers makes everything much more complex and would give much more power to ARM, which could also negotiate different terms and conditions according to each manufacturer – probably putting more pressure on the smaller ones.

Why spoil everything? The industry worked fantastically until now. ARM’s licenses gave enough flexibility for manufacturers to move forward in certain areas from a common base, but now these theoretical new policies would limit innovation and give ARM unprecedented control. It’s like ARM now pretends in become a manufacturer as well as designer/licensor, something that doesn’t seem likely.

unpredictable consequences. It’s hard to know the real impact something like this would have on the industry. Apple and NVIDIA are companies that have “favorable” agreements with ARM according to SemiAnalysis, and it is not clear if this new strategy would be applied “by hand” and to companies like Qualcomm, leaving these great allies alone for now. What is clear is that if the model changes, traditional ARM chipmakers like Qualcomm or MediaTek could see their businesses compromised. That, by the way, opens the doors to another alternative.

RISC-V. Open architecture is still far from what has been achieved with ARM designs, but if the British company closes the band, we could see a tipping point that would raise the momentum for RISC-V designs. It is unlikely in the short term, but perhaps with this measure the boost to these royalty-free “Open Source Hardware” designs would be definitive. At Intel they have already opened the door to this architecture, for example.

In the world of mobile processors, arm is king. A slightly peculiar king who until now did and let do.…

In the world of mobile processors, arm is king. A slightly peculiar king who until now did and let do.…

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