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Qualcomm vs Arm: The bizarro quotient just went off the scale

Even 2022 can't muster this much madness – or can it?

Opinion The stupid is strong right now. In politics, economics and climate, crass madness is the order of the day. Commerce has its own flagships of farce, the Ford Edsels and New Cokes of companies being their own worst enemies. That list of legendary loserdom may soon have a new name for the ages, if what Qualcomm claims for Arm's future plans is anywhere near the truth.

Qualcomm and Arm have been engaged in one of those very entertainingly bitter court fist-fights that the industry throws up when friends fall out over money. Briefly, Qualcomm builds its mobile device chips around Arm, for which it pays Arm a lot of money. Qualcomm bought another Arm-licensed company, Nuvia, and inherited Nuvia's own Arm deals and derived IP. Arm said 'Nu-uh, can't do that.' And into court they tumbled.

This sort of thing is normally lawyers locking horns over profit. Sometimes, though, it feels more like a fight to the death – and in this case, Qualcomm is making the case that a lot more than the details of per-chip licensing costs are involved. It says that Arm is about to make huge changes to its business model, imposing savage new restrictions on how its IP is used and making all its money from device makers, not chip companies. Which would cut Qualcomm off at the knees, if true.

Arm has become one of the world's most important processor companies because of three factors.

  1. It created an exceptionally efficient processor architecture that came to maturity as mobile devices took off worldwide.
  2. It allowed other companies to make chips with it, either as standalone processors or combined with other functions.
  3. It made no chips of its own so had no interest in competing with its customers.

The result is a global ecosystem with all the benefits of tools, experience and engineers supporting unrivaled billions of cores, from IoT to datacenters via the entire smartphone market.

All this would be devastated if Qualcomm's claims are correct. The move to license device makers instead of chip makers would be massively complicated for everyone, and would give Arm much more power by not having to negotiate with a few very large concerns but a much more diverse market with many smaller clients. Doubtless the market regulators would be very interested in that, but it's not quite world-beating suicidal madness.

World-beating suicidal madness comes with the other idea – that Arm would refuse to license a design that didn't use purely Arm intellectual property. You want a GPU design to go with the CPU? Arm. An AI accelerator? Arm or nothing.

The chip industry has always had a fondness for these sorts of shenanigans, but has known better than to write them down. You want a particular CPU? Terribly sorry, but there's a really long lead time on that part – unless you also buy the rest of our support chips... then we can do business. It's unethical, usually illegal, and even the biggest names look the other way when their sales teams do it.

For Arm to try the same tactic would be much, much worse. Arm is the default CPU for the systems-on-chip industry precisely because it is excellent at mixing and matching with whatever special sauce an SoC maker has. FPGA makers offer Arm cores as standard, simple-to-implement smart glue to ease design of additional functionality. Wireless chipset makers know how to make custom digital signal processing circuits; if they choose Arm, an entire software infrastructure is instantly available. You have an AI/ML vector processing design? Let Arm orchestrate it. Graphics cards with seas of cores? Same again.

These equations work from single-board computers like the Pi through to six-digit price tag industrial equipment. It would all go away if Arm said "Our way or the highway." It couldn't work. Arm could not deliver best-of-breed IP across the whole industry. Entire markets would die, their paths to innovation cut off. Others would scramble for other architectures as quickly as possible. RISC-V engineers would be able to buy small cities for their mothers.

Is it possible that Arm could be this stupid? It is possible, but it's staggeringly unlikely. The pushback from existing clients would be tectonic. Is it heavy-handed thuggery by Arm negotiators to tighten the screws without putting stuff on paper? Qualcomm will have to put up evidence of its claims, so we may find that out. Or is this lawsuit an attempt by Qualcomm to try to scare the market and put pressure on Arm into promises of good behavior?

In tech company legal spats, logic and reason can stay firmly out of sight for decades. Courts are very unpredictable places – as anyone who followed the SCO vs FOSS soap opera can attest. It is overwhelmingly likely that the horror story Qualcomm proposes is built for the alternate realities of commercial law disputes than the concrete business of printing patterns on silicon and swapping them for money. Yet the chip industry has had a hard enough time of it lately without further intimations of insanity at its heart. Both Arm and its clients are famous for turning down the thermals: their lawyers too should turn down the heat. ®

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