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Qualcomm pays $1.4bn to acquire ex-Apple and AMD Arm server chip engineers (and the biz they set up)

Purchase of Nuvia raises eyebrows

Qualcomm has announced it will pay $1.4bn for Arm data-center chip design biz Nuvia, a startup only established in 2019.

The acqui-hire is surprising given the fact that Qualcomm ditched its own Arm-based server-grade processor Centriq just before launch as part of a massive cost-cutting exercise that also saw 1,200 people laid off in 2018.

But Qualcomm isn’t primarily buying Nuvia: it’s buying the team behind the company, including ex-Apple wunderkind Gerard Williams who oversaw Cupertino’s custom Arm chips for more than a decade and is Nuvia’s CEO, not to mention co-founder Manu Gulati, who designed system-on-chips for Google, and former AMD architect John Bruno. In other words, one of the best Arm processor design teams on the planet – and Qualcomm is all about shipping Arm-powered Snapdragon system-on-chips for phones and slab-tops.

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Nuvia was developing its own beefy server-grade Arm chips, and Qualcomm wants in on that expertise, whether it's for silicon for data-center gear, mobile and handheld devices, PCs, or networking kit.

Legal hurdle

Apple was sufficiently worried about Williams that it sued him after he left the iGiant for Nuvia claiming that he broke its employment agreement. Williams tells a different story: after ten years of trying to persuade Apple to let him design a data-center chip and been constantly turned down, he decided to go his own way. It appears that case is still ongoing.

With that much experience and expertise with custom chips in one place, Nuvia represents a huge opportunity for Qualcomm to produce next-generation components, from the CPU cores to whole system-on-chips (SoCs) for devices. It will likely also make the folks who started or funded Nuvia fabulously rich – or, to be honest, fabulously richer.

It may mean Qualcomm relies less on licensing off-the-shelf CPU cores from Arm, and instead produces its own highly optimized Arm-compatible CPU designs from scratch, much like Apple has done and succeeded with its A-series in iThings and the M1 in its laptops. Apple has earned much praise for its strong silicon engineering in this area, and you'd hope Qualcomm wants to keep up with or go beyond Cupertino – which it could do with Nuvia's team.

It is also worth noting that the purchase announcement sparked a slew of endorsements from executives at some of the largest purchasers of chips in the world: Acer, Asus, General Motors, Google, HP, Lenovo, Microsoft, Samsung, Sony, and several others.

All those giants would love nothing more than faster, power-efficient Arm processors as an alternative to, or competition for, Intel and AMD's x86-64 offerings, Arm's library of blueprints, and Apple's homegrown parts. Particularly the Android equipment makers, they are relying on Qualcomm pulling a rabbit out of the hat – a powerful series of Snapdragon system-on-chips – so that they can build electronics that compete against devices featuring silicon from Apple, AMD, and so on. ®

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