Arm'd with ex-Apple engineers from Nuvia, Qualcomm hopes to make Apple M1-matching chips for Windows PCs

Funny how these things turn out


Qualcomm saw what Apple's M1 chip could do for performance and battery life, and claims its next Arm-compatible microprocessors will do exactly that for Windows PCs.

We're told Qualy will offer samples of its next-generation Windows-supporting Arm system-on-chips late next year, with the first products featuring the components shipping in 2023. The chip design will be based on technology from Nuvia, a startup Qualcomm acquired this year.

Nuvia was set up in 2019 by chip designers who previously toured Apple, AMD, Google, and others.

We note the startup was co-founded by Gerard Williams, the chief architect of the iPad and iPhone's custom high-performance silicon, to build an Arm data-center-class processor that Steve Jobs apparently didn't want to make at Apple.

The iGiant tried suing Williams, and now his outfit is at Qualcomm, which hopes to make processors rivaling Apple's M1 SoCs. Apple's star designers have ended up at a place designing chips for products competing against Apple. The revolving-door nature of Silicon Valley was ever thus.

PC architecture is moving in the direction of Arm, said Qualcomm CEO Cristiano Amon, speaking at Qualcomm's investor conference on Tuesday. He also acknowledged Apple's lead in bringing a mobile-first architecture to mainstream PCs.

"Some of the fastest PCs out there ... [are] based on an Arm architecture," Amon said, adding: "We'll see also the developer ecosystem switching. Look at some of the companies like Adobe, and part of their software development is just Arm first."

This is where Nuvia and its top brass, who were behind the Apple's groundbreaking family of chips, fit in. Qualcomm "acknowledged that it was behind on leading CPU and bought Nuvia. Nuvia leadership architected M1, M1 Pro, and M1 Max," said Patrick Moorhead, chief analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy, in a tweet.

Nuvia was highlighted as offering an "M-series competitive solution for PCs," in a slide during the presentation.

Amon made a clear jab at x86 chips from Intel and AMD, which are used in most Windows 10 and 11 PCs. But so far buyers haven't shown much interest for Qualcomm's Arm system-on-chips in Windows 10 and 11 PCs, which are made by Microsoft, Lenovo, Samsung, HP, and Acer.

qualcomm

Qualcomm's Cristiano Amon pitches future Arm-compatible Windows system-on-chips to investors at this week's conference

Arm-based Windows PCs may lag in performance as quite a few programs are built for x86/x64 and run through an Arm emulator in Windows. Microsoft has been urging developers to build native 64-bit Arm code for its OS, and highlighted the ease of recompiling software for the architecture. Meanwhile, Arm is pushing the development of Windows applications through frameworks like Electron and the Chromium Embedded Framework.

Today, Microsoft also said the emulation of x64 apps – that's 64-bit x86 – on Arm will only be generally available in Windows 11, and not Windows 10.

Server to desktop

The Nuvia Arm CPU design was originally focused on high-performance, power-efficient servers, Kevin Krewell, analyst at Tirias Research, told The Register.

"It's a wide core similar to Apple's high-performance CPUs in the M1 and A15 Bionic. I believe Qualcomm wanted to regain control over its silicon roadmap and not be reliant on Arm to provide all the CPU cores," Krewell said.

Krewell was referring to the fact that Qualcomm has been licensing off-the-shelf CPU cores from Arm, with some tweaks here and there, and putting them into its Snapdragon system-on-chips.

Yet Qualcomm, like Apple, has an architectural license from Arm that allows it to design its own CPU cores from scratch that implement the Arm architecture, such as ARMv9. Apple uses this approach extensively for the Arm-compatible silicon in its iThings and now Macs, and Qualcomm used to design its own cores before opting to use Arm's CPU blueprints and focus on adding homegrown accelerators to its chips.

It's assumed Qualcomm will ultimately return to the Apple-like approach and use Nuvia's Arm-compatible CPU designs. The first Nuvia chips will come to PCs, then automotive, and then to Snapdragon chips running on premium mobile devices with the Android OS.

"We're looking at the data center opportunistically, we're very focused on the edge," Amon added.

The Nuvia SoC will sport Arm-compatible CPU cores mixed with an Adreno GPU, Hexagon DSPs, 5G modem, sensing hub, and Spectra imaging core for cameras. Like Apple's M-series chips, Qualcomm's goal is to give Windows PCs longer battery life and decent performance.

The attributes of PCs are changing and there is more demand for mobile-like experience in terms of battery life and productivity, Amon said. "If you look what Apple has done with the M-series, on the upper hand it even has the performance of an [Nvidia] RTX 3080 at discrete graphics," he opined.

But the company is realistic it won't take away huge chunks of Windows PC market share from x86 anytime soon. There will some incremental revenue from the PC and compute opportunity over the next three years "but there is no heroic assumption in the forecast we outline," said Akash Palkhiwala, chief financial officer at Qualcomm, during the conference.

At the same time, the company is slowly getting Apple off its books. Apple's iPhone was a major revenue driver in Qualcomm for more than a decade, but is now developing its own 5G modem based on technology acquired from Intel. Apple switched to Intel's modems for its 4G iPhones after a licensing spat with Qualcomm, and settled a lawsuit in 2019.

Apple's newest iPhone 13 phones have Qualcomm's modems. But Qualcomm sent a strong indicator that the next round of iPhones will have Apple's homegrown modems.

The chipset revenue for licensing unit Qualcomm CDMA Technologies [QCT] from the iPhone will go down to 20 per cent in fiscal 2023, "with this assumption Apple revenue as a percent of QCT will be low single digits exiting fiscal 24," Palkhiwalla said. ®

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