In order for Android not to be “stuck”, Google is brewing a big plan

In the past two years, Nvidia (NVIDIA) has been in the limelight for a while.

One is the outbreak of deep learning around 2015, which has brought a considerable growth rate to NVIDIA's business. The second is that the virtual currency business is at the forefront, and the demand for high-computing graphics cards has skyrocketed, causing the volume and price of Nvidia graphics cards to soar.

Nvidia also generated $3.2 billion in revenue in the third quarter of 2021, and a year-on-year growth of 42%. As the current virtual currency begins to return to rationality, it will have an impact on Nvidia's graphics card business.

Nvidia also turned around at this CES, and began to announce its shift to the field of smart car autonomous driving, and began to look for the next business breakthrough point.

In fact, in 2020, when Nvidia's business is soaring, it planned to acquire Arm with 66 billion U.S. dollars, which became the largest merger and acquisition case of a chip company in history, and almost rewrote the entire semiconductor industry structure by itself.

The merger lasted two years, and finally in February this year, the two sides expressed strict supervision and terminated the transaction. And Arm also turned around and started preparing for an IPO.

In fact, more than that, Arm has also begun to consider increasing the licensing fee of chip architecture IP to boost its own business profitability.

In general, the future of Arm, which is still affiliated with Softbank, is still unknown, full of uncertainty and instability.

For a company, having an uncertain future is actually a compliment, but for Arm, it is not a good trend.

The reason is that Arm is not an ordinary technology company, but a company that can influence the current chip pattern. It is too important for Google or Apple.

In the future, Google intends to lower the power of Arm

The SoCs launched by Qualcomm and MediaTek are based on the chip IP launched by Arm, and these SoCs have become the basis for the current prosperity of Android devices.

It can be said that without Arm, there would be no prosperous and huge Android ecosystem, and naturally it would not be able to provide Google with a huge service portal.

The same goes for Apple.

After waving goodbye to the x86 architecture, Apple's new desktop chip M series for Mac fully embraced the Arm architecture and opened the Arm era.

After the Mac desktop product line turned to Arm, the ecological power that Apple is proud of is also rooted in the soil of the Arm architecture, which can be said to have broken the barriers between devices and completed the brand barriers.

As Nvidia founder Huang Renxun said, Arm will become the most important CPU architecture in the next decade. Apple is doing the same.

In the industry, Arm's penetration and ability to seize the x86 traditional market are not limited to Android and Apple for ordinary people.

Traditional servers, Arm-based processors, are gradually encroaching on the x86 traditional architecture market. That is, in just a few years, the once dominant x86 architecture is also being beaten by Arm, the back wave.

However, the situation of the current mainstream chip two dragons playing the pearl did not last long. RISC-V, which was born in 2010, is gradually becoming the "new favorite" of the industry, and it is coming fiercely.

Recently, Google officially announced that Android will gradually support the RISC-V instruction set architecture, and announced a more detailed migration roadmap.

Android engineering director Lars Bergstrom said more directly, "I hope to regard RISC-V as a first-level (tier 1) platform in Android", which means that it is on an equal footing with Arm.

Google's intentions are also quite clear. It doesn't want to deeply bind Android to Arm, so that the control of the Android system will return to Google, and it will no longer be controlled by others.

In fact, Google has been adding support for RISC-V to Android. In September last year, it began to add RISC-V patches to the AOSP project and opened up related permissions.

Now the official statement has accelerated the process of Android compatibility or transfer to RISC-V. At the same time, Google is expected to launch an official emulator in the first quarter of 2023, allowing Java-based Android programs to run on the RISC-V architecture.

To put it simply, this process is somewhat similar to Apple's Rosette. It is an official translation tool that can transfer Java to RISC-V, and the lack of App ecology in the early stage of the new architecture platform will be easily solved.

Arm out of favor, RISC-V in favor

In addition to Google's high-profile stand on RISC-V, Qualcomm has also recently almost brushed off with Arm.

▲ Arm-based Surface Pro X

The root of the problem is that Qualcomm acquired the Nuvia chip start-up company and intends to develop its own architecture based on the Arm public version architecture to enhance its competitiveness in the field of mobile chips.

However, Arm believes that Qualcomm's acquisition of Nuvia does not mean that it can obtain the authorization of Nuvia's customizable Arm architecture, and thus sues Qualcomm for violating the IP licensing agreement. To this day, the two still disagree.

▲ Arm public version IP core

The core problem of this situation lies in Arm's business model, which relies on the public version of the architecture IP authorization to earn authorization fees, and charges a certain fee on each chip.

It can be customized (such as frequency, core) based on Arm's public architecture IP, but the core architecture itself cannot be modified.

Through the acquisition, Qualcomm changed the Arm core, which obviously moved Arm's cake. In addition, Qualcomm is a major customer of Arm. This move will undoubtedly weaken Arm's position.

▲ Fire Dragon and Dragon Training have almost become a stalk of Qualcomm chips

For Qualcomm, the unfavorable design of the Arm public version architecture in the past few years has caused the SoC energy efficiency of its production to perform poorly, and many Android flagships have also been implicated.

At that time, Apple's A-series chip "Miao Miao Quan" and consumer groups called Qualcomm chips "Fire Dragon", which also accelerated Qualcomm's determination to design its own architecture.

But now Arm is pressing Qualcomm step by step, and it is in a big fight with authorization and licensing, which also makes Qualcomm have additional plans. This Plan B is the RISC-V architecture that has become popular recently.

At present, Google and Qualcomm have almost started to work on RISC-V. Although they are not all-in, their priority has reached the same level as Arm, and they are also starting to build a new track.

As Apple, which is currently unrestricted by Arm, due to the early investment of Apple, Arm has become an independent company.

Therefore, Apple has also obtained the modification and adjustment of the Arm IP core, and then cooperated with the layout of more than ten years to create the current "Apple chip", and finally cooperated with the software system to create Apple's ecological barriers.

Even if there will be no dilemma similar to Google and Qualcomm being constrained by Arm for the time being, Apple still intends to transfer the embedded core to the RISC-V architecture, and has also begun to recruit relevant talents.

Regarding Apple's changes, SemiAnalysis analyst Dylan Patel said bluntly that the non-user-oriented Arm core in Apple's A-series chips is likely to be replaced by RISC-V in the next few years of iteration.

In the A and M series chips, in addition to the main cores such as CPU and GPU, there are many embedded cores to control WiFi, Bluetooth, Thunderbolt interfaces, etc. Almost all of them are based on Arm's Cortex-A series cores, and Apple has to pay Arm a considerable licensing fee for each chip.

To put it bluntly, Apple, which has developed its own chips smoothly in recent years, actually wants to reduce the cost of chips by transferring to the RISC-V architecture.

The biggest advantage of RISC-V is "completely open source"

RISC-V is simply an open source instruction set architecture (ISA) based on the reduced instruction set (RISC) principle.

After the establishment of the University of California, Berkeley in 2010, with the support of 36 technology companies including Samsung, IBM, NVIDIA, Qualcomm, Google, Huawei, and Tesla, the RISC-V Foundation was established and renamed RISC in 2020 -V International.

Compared with x86 and Arm, the biggest feature of RISC-V is the complete open source of ISA. Anyone, enterprise and institution can change, optimize and deploy freely based on the RISC-V architecture, and there will be no license fees, copyright fees, and no additional terms.

After being completely open-sourced, chips such as CPUs or SoCs developed based on the RISC-V architecture will naturally not be "stuck" due to some special reasons.

Therefore, at present, many domestic core-making companies have also begun to invest in the layout of RISC-V architecture chips in recent years, and some new chip platforms based on RISC-V architecture have also appeared. RISC-V is also considered to be a breakthrough point for China's chip industry in the future.

▲ Meng Jianyi, vice president of Alibaba Pingtouge Semiconductor

However, at present, it is still too early for the RISC-V architecture chip platform to enter consumer electronics products. Digitaltrends showed in the analysis that the biggest problem of RISC-V now is actually the fragmentation problem brought about by complete open source.

Due to the free deployment of ISA, RISC-V chips come in all varieties, and are currently mainly used in some industrial fields and the Internet of Things, and it seems that there is still a long way to go to consumers. And "open source does not mean free." The RISC-V chips developed by manufacturers can also be sold or authorized to other manufacturers to use their IP cores, which has a taste of Arm.

You can design it yourself, or cooperate with other companies to design it, or even directly buy the IP architecture of other companies, no matter which one is cheaper than Arm. This is the second advantage of RISC-V.

Interestingly, Intel, the head manufacturer of the x86 architecture, is also an international member of RISC-V, and is also interested in the RISC-V architecture. The reason is that Intel has its own factory, and manufacturing foundry RISC-V chips is very likely to be a major player in the future. New business sector.

Another member, Nvidia, also said that the CPU of the RISC-V architecture will be a meaningful supplement to its GPU business. In particular, Nvidia has also begun to deploy smart car platforms, and the RISC-V architecture will be a better choice.

▲ Intel CEO Patrick Gelsinger

Faced with the rapid growth and popularity of RISC-V, Arm said that manufacturers are very satisfied with the performance of its public core, even though they cannot freely modify the IP architecture.

With this, Arm processors are also shining today, whether in Android, iPhone, Mac, or even Arm-based server CPUs are gradually moving towards the traditional x86 field.

However, RISC-V has just started, and Google, Qualcomm, and Apple have just begun to deploy. RISC-V International predicts that by 2025, RISC-V processors will occupy a 14% share of the entire CPU market.

However, these manufacturers did not give a deadline for a RISC-V chip to enter the consumer market. The previous Google was just making a plan. Whether to transfer may depend on the RISC-V ecological development and Arm's follow-up trends.

In any case, under the current situation, the advantages of RISC-V's complete open source are infinitely magnified, and Arm's closed source and its business model have become the sword of Damocles on the heads of many manufacturers.

The chip industry in the future is not the rivalry between Arm and x86 as we see now, but the situation of the three countries after the rise of RISC-V.

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