The chip war is heating up
Recent rounds of the seemingly endless silicon skirmish have centred around Intel, which is hoping to be a major beneficiary of US president Joe Biden’s CHIPS act and is busy expanding production capacity in both the US and Europe. The long and the short of it is that Intel, unlike its major competitor AMD, not only has its own manufacturing facilities, it has them in both the US itself and friendly countries and far away from east Asia, which is increasingly viewed by America as potentially geopolitical unstable.
It matters, or rather politicians have woken up and realised that it matters, because the coronavirus pandemic and its attendant lockdowns demonstrated just how vulnerable major economies were to chip shortages following decades of outsourced manufacturing.
Silicon supply is not the only front in the chip war, however. Last week, Arm filed a lawsuit against Qualcomm, meaning two of the world’s largest semiconductor firms are now at loggerheads. Arm’s goal is to strike down Qualcomm’s $1.4 billion (approx. €1.41 billion) purchase of Nuvia and have any Qualcomm designs based on Nuvia’s work destroyed.
Founded in 2019 by chip designers from Apple, Nuvia was purchased by Qualcomm last year with the aim of developing custom CPU designs based on, but different from, Arm’s designs, much as Apple has done with its ‘Apple silicon’ M1 and M2 chips. The sticking point for Arm, it seems, is that while both Qualcomm and Nuvia are independent licensees of Arm’s designs, Nuvia’s licence is rather more liberal than Qualcomm’s. Implementing custom cores based in Nuvia’s work would therefore result in paying lower licence fees to Arm, which investor Softbank is seeking to float on the stock market real soon now following a failed deal to sell it to Nvidia.
For its part, Qualcomm had been promising to develop revolutionary CPUs for Windows-based devices that would deliver similar speed and power-saving benefits to those seen in Apple’s recent efforts. Suing Qualcomm is potentially a risky decision for Arm, as Qualcomm is thought to be the largest customer of the UK-based fabless CPU designer. On the other hand, where else is Qualcomm going to go for designs?
Although Apple is not involved in the suit it has a potential interest, too. Though they do lag on some gaming benchmarks, Apple’s chips have proved themselves blazingly fast and mere sippers of energy, causing major excitement in the industry, especially in the energy-hungry world of servers. Keeping similar performance out of the reach of Window users, thereby forcing them to stick with CPUs that could double as space heaters, would be an obvious win for the Macdaddy of Cupertino, then.
And there’s the rub: with data centres now in the spotlight for energy use in many countries, not least Ireland of course, powerful but not power-hungry CPUs that can easily run existing Windows and Linux software would be a very valuable commodity indeed.