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China's ISCAS to build 2,000 RISC-V laptops by the end of 2022 as nation seeks to cut reliance on Arm, Intel chips

Software porting efforts aim to make sure Android, Linux, Firefox, and Chrome work well ahead of time

The Institute of Software at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (ISCAS) is working to build 2,000 laptops using the free and open-source RISC-V instruction set architecture by the end of next year, as the nation looks to reduce its reliance on foreign technology giants like Arm and Intel.

First developed at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2010, RISC-V is an open-source alternative to proprietary processor architectures including Arm and x86. Anyone is free to build chips based on RISC-V, which can themselves be open or closed source, and anyone can modify or extend the architecture as they see fit.

Those freedoms have been of particular interest to China since former US president Donald Trump launched a trade war in 2018 which hit Chinese technology companies with punitive tariffs and outright trade embargoes – including the potential for companies like Huawei to be cut off entirely from the Arm and Intel intellectual property that powers their devices.

The solution: take something like RISC-V and bring the technology in-house, and that's exactly what the nation is doing – starting, but not ending, with Huawei and Alibaba.

"The ISCAS is seeking to build 2,000 RV64GC laptops before the end of 2022," ISCAS member Wei Wu announced in a mailing list post this weekend. "I am focusing on the software side. There are still a few 'big absences' in the RISC-V software ecosystem which should be supported when the hardware is ready. The availability of mainstream browsers is currently the highest demand we heard."

Accordingly, Wu, who had previously announced an early first-boot effort to get the Android Open Source project (AOSP) mobile platform running on RISC-V hardware, is working on making sure that open-source browsers Firefox and Chromium, as well as the browser-focused operating system Chromium OS, work correctly on RV64GC RISC-V processors.

The team won't be alone in its work: "After talking with Han Mao (the chair of Android SIG [Special Interest Group])," Wu added in a follow-up message, "we realised that there are lots of common open source components in Android and ChromiumOS/Chromium porting efforts. Han Mao would like to help us putting the porting and optimising of common parts under Android SIG."

"It is great to see how RISC-V helps setting the stage for a decade of hardware platform innovation," commented Stefan Wallentowitz, RISC-V director and director at the FOSSi Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to building the community and ecosystem of free and open source silicon.

"RISC-V and open source silicon enable innovators to collaborate and share efforts. I hope that as much of the platform is open source as possible, and there is more to come. I am looking forward to holding the first RISC-V laptop in my hands."

ISCAS itself has not yet publicly announced the project, nor explained what it plans to do with the 2,000 laptops once they have been produced. ®

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