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A lawsuit to expose the chip industry’s deceit: Why ARM to tear Qualcomm

The famous chip design company ARM to their own major customers to the court, which led to two of the most valuable semiconductor companies into a direct conflict, which can not help but raise doubts about their future relationship.

ARM sues major customer Qualcomm

At the heart of the conflict is Nuvia, a chip startup acquired by Qualcomm last year for $1.4 billion. ARM claims that Nuvia develops chip designs under an ARM license that cannot be transferred to Qualcomm without consent.

Lawsuits over intellectual property and contracts are common in the semiconductor industry. But the lawsuit between ARM and Qualcomm is a major conflict over the ability to compete for chip designs. It could have a major impact on chip startups and open a path for the adoption of an open-source architecture alternative to ARM.

In reality, ARM’s relationship with Qualcomm is not as good as it seems; they are partners, but they also compete fiercely in private. This lawsuit also reveals the delicate relationship between the two companies.

Partners, but also enemies
ARM chips have been gaining ground in recent years because they are more energy efficient than the x86 chips made by Intel and AMD. 29 billion ARM chips will be shipped in 2021, including the main chips used in Apple’s iPhone, Mac and iPad.

Companies such as Apple obtain instruction set architecture (ISA) licenses from ARM and then design their own physical processor circuits to execute ISA instructions. Historically, other companies such as Qualcomm have also purchased the rights to use the complete core design, or Cortex core, from ARM, which reports $2.7 billion in licensing and royalty revenue in 2021.

ARM Cortex chips

However, there is a conflict between ARM’s architecture licensing business and its own CPU design business, as companies such as Qualcomm that license ARM’s architecture develop their own processors and compete with ARM’s CPU design business. MediaTek, for example, uses ARM’s CPU designs.

When Nvidia announced its $40 billion acquisition of ARM in 2020, the chip industry immediately split into two camps: MediaTek, Broadcom and Marvell, which use ARM CPU designs, supported the acquisition, and Qualcomm and Intel, which developed their own processors, opposed it. Among them, Qualcomm’s opposition was the loudest.

In a document outlining the acquisition deal late last year, ARM emphasized that while Qualcomm is a licensee of ARM’s architecture, the company uses its own team of engineers to develop proprietary CPU designs and does not use ARM’s CPU designs, and that the two parties are in direct competition.

“ARM’s architecture licensees, such as Qualcomm, compete head-to-head with licensees such as MediaTek that use ARM’s own CPU designs. As a result, these architecture licensees will benefit from the declining competitiveness of ARM’s designs and from ARM’s reduced investment in its own engineering teams. They will also benefit if ARM is forced to remain independent and has to scale back its R&D to please the public market.” ARM explained.

In a statement, Qualcomm general counsel Ann Chaplin said the dispute was a departure from the “long and successful relationship” the two companies have built. “ARM ignores the fact that Qualcomm has broad, well-established licensing rights covering its custom-designed CPUs, and we believe these rights will be affirmed,” Chaplin said. Chaplin said.

In a statement, ARM said the company “had no choice but to file a lawsuit against Qualcomm and Nuvia to protect our intellectual property and business and to ensure that our customers can legally use ARM architecture products.

Qualcomm’s expansion path blocked
Qualcomm acquired Nuvia because it wanted its chips to outperform off-the-shelf ARM processor designs, particularly to compete with Apple’s highly efficient custom ARM cores, a startup founded by former Apple and Google engineers that was developing a server chip with a customizable core based on an architectural license. It also used ARM’s core design.


Qualcomm CEO introduces Snapdragon chips

With the acquisition of Nuvia, Qualcomm is putting Nuvia at the heart of its smartphone and PC strategy, using Nuvia’s cores to boost PC chip performance and give its laptop processors, due as soon as 2023, a better counterweight to Apple’s M-series homegrown chips.

But ARM says Qualcomm has the architecture license but needs ARM’s consent to buy and use Nuvia’s custom core design. ARM has terminated Nuvia’s license in March this year after the two sides failed to communicate.

Alternative Architectures
If ARM’s arguments are upheld in court, Qualcomm’s entire chip strategy could change. However, Qualcomm may have another path to follow.

Karl Freund, founder and analyst at Cambrian AI Research, speculated that Qualcomm might try to use RISC-V, an open-source alternative to the ARM instruction set. ARM had told regulators last December that “the momentum for RISC-V is accelerating” and that older Vendors are increasingly using it to replace ARM’s instruction set. A handful of startups are currently developing CPU cores based on the RISC-V architecture, but it is not yet being used in popular smartphones, which currently use all ARM architecture chips.

However, ARM’s efforts to strengthen IP ownership with long-time partners may prompt companies developing custom ARM cores to reconsider open source alternatives.

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Threza Gabriel
Threza Gabrielhttps://www.techgoing.com
TechGoing is a global tech media to brings you the latest technology stories, including smartphones, electric vehicles, smart home devices, gaming, wearable gadgets, and all tech trending.
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