Now RISC-V being open source doesn’t mean that all CPUs based on it are open source too. There are some, but Qualcomm will be designing its own, putting its expertise in developing efficient and performant chips. This will give Google (and the Android ecosystem as a whole) an alternative platform – both as fallback and to use as leverage when negotiating prices with ARM.
PS. RISC-V has been around for a few years now and has attracted a lot of attention from other companies too – big names like Bosch, Infineon, Nordic Semiconductor, NXP and Qualcomm joined forces to speed up the development of RISC-V hardware. Others too, e.g. Western Digital designed RISC-V cores to use in its flash controllers where previously it used licensed designs from ARM, Intel and others, which added cost to the millions of SSDs that it ships.
Android used to support various architectures – ARM, x86, MIPS. While x86 is still technically supported, the choice for smartphones, tablets and smartwatches is down to only ARM. This means that whoever owns ARM has an outsized influence over the whole ecosystem. Now Qualcomm and Google have announced that they are working on an alternative architecture.
Google and Qualcomm are starting small – literally, the two companies are working on RISC-V based Snapdragon Wear chipsets “that will power next-generation Wear OS solutions”.
Android doesn’t yet have official support for RISC-V, the instruction set is so new that some parts of it are still in development and Google hasn’t decided on the baseline features that will be required. But since Wear OS is based on Android, this should be a stepping stone for more powerful chipsets that will be used in phones and tablets in the future.
Here’s why RISC-V is a big deal. ARM charges companies like Qualcomm, Samsung, MediaTek and others for use of their Cortex CPU designs. Some companies like Apple, Samsung and Qualcomm (sometimes) use CPUs they designed in-house, but that requires an expensive “architectural license”.
You may or may not have heard of RISC-V (pronounced “risk five”). It’s an open-source instruction set for CPUs that has been gaining traction recently. Its open-source nature means that chipset designers don’t need to pay royalties like they do with ARM. ARM also limits who can create custom CPU cores (that costs extra).
Qualcomm tends to launch new Wear generations every couple of years – Wear 2100 in 2016, Wear 3100 in 2018, Wear 4100 in 2020 and most recently W5 in 2022. So, W6 next year? It’s possible, but the company’s press release ends with the vague “Commercial product launch of the RISC-V wearable based solution timing will be disclosed at a later date.”