Qualcomm & Google Announce RISC-V Wearable Platform

By Patrick Moorhead - October 24, 2023

The Six Five team discusses Qualcomm & Google’s announcement on RISC-V wearable platform.

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Daniel Newman: Google and Qualcomm are going all in on RISC-V. Is it the end of Arm?

Patrick Moorhead: Wow, you kind of jumped right in there, didn’t you?

Daniel Newman: Sorry, I was feeling it this morning.

Patrick Moorhead: No, no, never be sorry dude. Just be you. No, here’s the deal. So I do need just to explain kind of what’s going on. So Qualcomm made an announcement with a supporting quote from Google, essentially saying they’re going to build a wearable ecosystem based on RISC-V. There were no divisibility dates or anything other than the announcement. I don’t think that means it’s vaporware. In fact, it’s very much real. Qualcomm has been part of the RISC-V consortium for a while. And back in September they cranked out a pretty big press release on their continued commitment. And quite frankly, again, almost everybody has RISC-V in some way, shape or form AMD has controllers and NVIDIA does on their graphics cards. I believe that Qualcomm has some on their modems or their RF. I’m not exactly sure which one, but essentially think if you don’t know what RISC-V is, each piece of software speaks different language.

Some speak x86, some speak Arm, and this new one called RISC-V. In the past there were architectures called MIPS. You have a different instruction set architecture for the power platform at IBM as well as their Z mainframe as well. So a lot of different instruction sets. But I think the big question I had is, and the question I would get is, Hey, what does this mean? The Qualcomm wear ecosystem isn’t huge. Apple dominates in wearables and there are some low end vendors who supply a lot of the Chinese. So what does it mean and why should we care? Well, there is a distinct potential that if Google and Qualcomm successfully pull this off in the market, that this could lead to a RISC-V smartphone. Okay, and we’re looking at a 1.4 billion unit market that today is a really 100% dominated by Arm and it is a heavy turn.

But let’s look at some previous heavy turns. Peck, Intel used to do smartphones and they had an award-winning, award-winning smartphones that they powered. And what they did is they did instruction set translation in the cloud when you would actually download the application and you’re like, well, how does it work like that? And why doesn’t it work like that in Apple? Well, the oldest modern smartphone app is probably five to six years old that runs on Android or iOS and they use IDEs and they use very high level abstracted tools maybe with a section of games. So even Intel was running Android applications that were initially written for Arm. They were auto translated in the Android app store. So another example is Apple, and what they did going from Intel to Arm, and one of the keys there was backward compatibility and the ability for that chip to run x86 instructions until it wasn’t pretty.

But when you’re bringing that much performance, probably a 40% performance per watt boost over x86, you can get away with maybe 10% overhead of doing that. The final example I’ll use is Arm in the data center, where you’ll have applications. It could be 20 years old, it took Arm a little over 10 years to move that you had to do the OS, you had to do malware, you had to do application application layer. But in about 10 years now we have AWS doing a full up graviton for their entire data center. We have Ampero One running the entire NetSuite layer for Oracle. So yeah, this is possible. Now, how difficult is this going to be doing smartphones? It would be more difficult than a wearable, less difficult for a PC in the data center, probably take about five years. That’s just an educated guess to get this right. And the long poll is always games where they are doing some deep instruction level work.

Daniel Newman: So first of all, am I in?

Patrick Moorhead: You’re in, baby.

Daniel Newman: I’m in. Second of all, you have to wonder where it’s at in terms of the things that aren’t being announced. And so we know that it’s been several months now since Arm brought its lawsuit to Qualcomm. And we know that with that, Qualcomm not only is arguably the world’s largest law firm, kind of joking, but kind of serious, successfully defended an onslaught of attacks from basically every FTC in the world and Apple all at one time. And with that, I think Qualcomm certainly is going to be thinking very significantly about hedging its strategy long-term. And of course Pat, I think you made some really good arguments about where that will start and directionally where that might go. It’s going to start with simpler devices where risk architecture is less risk potentially to be able to develop around and over time likely see it expound itself into other areas, expand itself into other areas.

As you suggested, Pat, I think like you said, I think there’s lots of companies exploring risk right now and the possibilities and as Arm continues to grow, change the way it licenses, change the way it charges to make sure that it’s meeting the demands of its shareholders that could open up doors for open source that could open up doors for RISC-V. Remember, Arm is a risk architecture. So it started there and of course found its way to disrupt Intel and others taking significant market, not the majority, but significant. And over time you’ll expect new architectures to find their way into the market like this. So where does it head from here, Pat? I think there’s probably work being done in those more advanced devices that you mentioned around risk, but I do think it’s early days. I think your estimate of five years is probably pretty close into the ballpark of where it might be.

But I do think it’s coming. I do think I’d say on the record, I think these companies are going to hedge, they’re not going to let themselves get into a situation where they can be controlled by a licensing agreement if they don’t have to be. And we’ve seen it happen to every company that has substantial licensing that over time they want to have more control of vertical integration, they want to have more control over margin and pricing. And if RISC offers that opportunity, RISC-V offers that opportunity. I could see it going more in that direction. So you hit the news itself. I’m just kind of philosophizing on what’s going to happen with RISC-V, but I think you made some really good assessments there and those additional comments are mine.

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Patrick founded the firm based on his real-world world technology experiences with the understanding of what he wasn’t getting from analysts and consultants. Ten years later, Patrick is ranked #1 among technology industry analysts in terms of “power” (ARInsights)  in “press citations” (Apollo Research). Moorhead is a contributor at Forbes and frequently appears on CNBC. He is a broad-based analyst covering a wide variety of topics including the cloud, enterprise SaaS, collaboration, client computing, and semiconductors. He has 30 years of experience including 15 years of executive experience at high tech companies (NCR, AT&T, Compaq, now HP, and AMD) leading strategy, product management, product marketing, and corporate marketing, including three industry board appointments.