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Chinese e-commerce and technology giant Alibaba has unveiled its first semiconductor design, reports Nikkei Asian Review. The Xuantie 910 is based on the RISC-V instruction set architecture (ISA) and appears aimed at providing an alternative to chipsets based on Arm or Intel ISAs, which could help Chinese companies establish a chipset platform that’s independent from US- and UK-based suppliers.
Here’s what it means: Alibaba’s initial foray into the semiconductor space is the latest in a rash of Chinese tech companies wading further into the sector in the face of US trade restrictions.
- Xiaomi recently acquired a stake in Shanghai-based VeriSilicon, making it the chipmaker’s second-largest investor. This puts Xiaomi in a position to nudge development efforts and ensure it has a supply line for the silicon it needs. In recent years, Xiaomi has exercised greater control over its chip functions, including producing its own system-on-a-chip (SoC). The VeriSilicon investment could help it further reduce its reliance on American chip designers like Qualcomm.
- Huawei confirmed in May that its chipmaking subsidiary HiSilicon — which develops a suite of Chinese-native chips for use in Huawei phones — has been preparing to replace US-sourced components in the event of an incident like the trade restrictions on US companies selling or licensing components to the Chinese firm. While US pressure on Huawei appears to be easing, the company is looking to ensure that it maintains supply lines for its phones should that situation change again.
Alibaba, however, is cutting far closer to the core of the mobile semiconductor space. Its design could provide a complete alternative to supplies from US- and UK-based chipmakers. British semiconductor designer Arm, which was acquired by Softbank in 2016 for $32 billion, develops the ARM architecture, which is a family of ISAs.
The design is the most basic processor technology at the core of smartphones today and is used in the vast majority of smartphones globally. Alibaba’s new chip design can offer an alternative to Arm’s designs, breaking Chinese companies’ reliance on foreign component makers, as the RISC-V ISA is open source and usable without licensing or royalties.
The bigger picture: Alibaba’s move to embrace an ISA beyond the purview of restriction by the US and its allies could create a software and operating system (OS) divide between China and the US.
Unlike moving from one SoC to another, software and OSs would need to be written entirely differently for one ISA versus another. For example, apps would need to be rewritten to function on an SoC featuring the Xuantie 910 or a follow-up processor, and it would also need an entirely new or reworked OS. If companies like Alibaba move forward with plans to make an RISC-V-based chipset, they could expand the already wide gulf between the US and China in the software world.
The mobile space could ultimately look much like the PC sector did more than a decade ago. The early days of PCs featured a wealth of ISAs; while Intel’s x86 architecture and its extensions are now the default, Apple built computers using its PowerPC ISA as recently as 2005.
This meant that software for Apple’s computers and for Windows PCs had to be written fundamentally differently to run on different devices. Achieving compatibility was difficult, and offering multiplatform software costly for developers. We could see a similar fate in mobile, as a prominent new chipset based on a different ISA could make the already-tangled web of relationships in the space even more so.
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