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Alibaba Cloud gets more of Android working on RISC-V silicon

Cameras, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth are operational – maybe China’s wider tech independence plan is, too

Alibaba Cloud has advanced its work to port Android to the RISC-V architecture.

The Chinese cloud giant has spent more than a year working on a port of the Google-spawned OS and in January 2021 showed off a GUI powered by Android 10 running on silicon designed by T-Head Semiconductor – an Alibaba subsidiary that designs its own RISC-V chip.

Alibaba Cloud has now revealed it's working on Android 12, and has integrated third-party vendor modules. The result is Android on RISC-V that's capable of playing audio and video, running Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios, and driving cameras.

The company has also "enabled more system enhancement features such as core tool sets, third-party libraries and SoC board support package on RISC-V," which collectively make RISC-V a better target for Android.

Another advance is successful trials of TensorFlow Lite models on RISC-V. That effort means Android on RISC-V should be capable running workloads like image and audio classification and Optical Character Recognition.

Alibaba Cloud hasn't detailed whether its porting efforts are directed to any particular processor, but is keen to point out that its homegrown Xuantie C906 processor recently aced the MLPerf Tiny v0.7 benchmark – a test applied to Internet of Things devices. The company has also pointed out that its home-grown RISC-V kit has already been employed in smart home appliances, automotive applications, and edge computing.

Those uses – plus the emphasis on AI and IoT – suggest Alibaba Cloud is most interested in using the combination of RISC-V and Android to power devices other than smartphones. The reference to working cameras and wireless comms is as relevant to non-phone devices as it is to those seeking to erode chip design firm Arm's dominance of the handset market.

The Xuantie C906 uses Alibaba-designed cores that are – as required for RISC-V users – available on GitHub.

The firm has not offered a timeline for when it aims to have a complete version of Android on RISC-V.

Whenever it happens, the feat will be an important step towards China's goal of reducing its reliance on technology that other nations can control with restrictions such as trade bans. As RISC-V is open source, preventing its flow to China is all but impossible. ®

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