Everyone wants their own ARM chip: Google, Apple, Huawei and Samsung already make their SoCs, but there are many more in the works
Until not long ago it was normal that in the mobiles that the manufacturers were launching the SoC, the chip that rules them all, was manufactured by Qualcomm or MediaTek.
Apple and Samsung were the first to stand out and also become manufacturers of their own mobile chips, but that trend is increasingly popular: Huawei is another of the highlights, and now Google Tensor has arrived. Oppo is planning to launch its own SoCs in 2023 or 2024, and there are more manufacturers on the hook. We are in the era of “make yourself your own mobile chip”.
If you want something well done, do it yourself?
Mobile manufacturers have delegated almost everything for many years: their devices differed in some design elements and of course in areas such as mobile photography, but his control over these sections was always limited.
In fact one of the limitations was imposed by the SoC, the heart of all mobile. This chip brings together the CPU, the GPU, the 4G / 5G modem, the ISP and other components such as artificial intelligence processors that are increasingly relevant.
The problem is that the brands had no control over those chips: Manufacturers such as Qualcomm or MediaTek offered a series of options in the same way that Intel and AMD do in the world of PCs, and mobile manufacturers “assembled” the most suitable chip for each of the devices they were launching.
However, in the world of mobiles there is an important distinction with respect to the world of processors for PCs and laptops. While Intel and AMD designs are not licensed – only they design and manufacture their CPUs. in mobile the landscape is dominated by a common base, which are ARM designs, which are licensed to anyone who pays to do it.
Qualcomm and MediaTek licensed those designs years ago and created a whole range of products from those licenses, but there were mobile manufacturers that they realized that they could also become chip makers for those mobiles. They just needed to license the ARM technology and build it on their own.
It is what Apple and Samsung did in 2010, what Huawei began to do timidly in 2012 (the first Kirin would not arrive until 2015) and what Google has also recently ended up doing, which yesterday featured the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro based on Google Tensor chips.
All of them have discovered the advantages of making their own chips: they can customize them to focus on the characteristics that can differentiate their devices the most, but also can adjust those benefits as needed of each product range.
Apple has been doing this for years with its AXX family of processors – the latest, the A15 Bionic in the iPhone 13 – but its experience as a semiconductor manufacturer has made it an exceptional leap with the development of the M1 chips last year, which have recently seen their new and powerful successors, the M1 Pro and M1 Max appear.
It is a clear example of the control capacity that these divisions give, and although no other company has made that leap to chips for their laptops and desktops – Intel and AMD can be calm, for now – what does seem clear is that the threat of these efforts affects Qualcomm and MediaTek the most.
In fact, the trend is increasing. Nikkei Asia recently indicated how Oppo also intends to manufacture its own chips for its mobiles. The goal is to have them ready in 2023 or 2024.
They also mention Xiaomi, which years ago seemed to want to get into this segment and that according to Nikkei has reduced its expectations for focus on the design of ISPs for their mobile cameras. He has already made his first steps in that section with the Xiaomi Surge C1, for example.
I also want to mount it on my own on servers and laptops
That ambition is not only becoming apparent in the mobile world, and there are a few companies – and not exactly small companies – that have been developing chips for another segment for some time: the one with the servers. In several of these efforts, that work could end up being used for PCs and laptops, so watch out.
Amazon has been developing its ARM chips for this area, the so-called Graviton, for some time, and Google – which had already explored the idea in 2013 – wants to do exactly the same to empower your cloud platform. It won’t stop there, and they also seem to want to develop their own chips for the 2023 Chromebooks.
They are not the only ones, and there are a few more into the garlic. Microsoft is apparently working on its ARM server chips, and it may be that also for future Surface. In Huawei they have already announced a laptop with its own ARM chip, although it is only sold in China.
Another big one, NVIDIA, introduced Grace a few months ago, its ARM chip for servers, and that the soap opera has not yet been resolved of the purchase of ARM.
And then there is Qualcomm, which seemed not to be moving chips but that months ago he bought Nuvia: with it he poses a frontal attack on both the ARM chips for servers and those that will end up competing with Apple’s M1s (or so they say in Qualcomm).
MediaTek is the great cover of this market, and points to chips that increasingly pose interesting things for example for Chromebooks, and as if that were not enough, Alibaba announced just yesterday the arrival of the Yitian 710, an ARM chip for servers with 60,000 million transistors (the M1 Max has 57,000) which is also promising.
We are therefore facing a very different reality from what was lived a few years ago: suddenly all the greats want to have their own chips and stop depending on third parties. We will see if this unique war ends up having the impact that these companies expect.