Rivals and legal action cast shadows over Windows on Arm market

Player MediaTek: Ready

The race for Arm-based Windows laptops could soon get interesting, as MediaTek is said to be preparing to enter the game, while the legal battle between Arm and Qualcomm could disrupt the latter's products.

Chips and telecoms company Qualcomm spent some time at the recent recent Computex show revelling in the 20-plus vendors it claims are bringing Windows on Arm laptops and other systems to market, including a pair of Microsoft Surface devices.

Branded as Copilot+ PCs, this new wave of Arm-powered Windows devices are all based on Qualcomm's Snapdragon X Elite and X Plus system-on-chip (SoC) silicon. This is because of a purported exclusivity deal between Microsoft and the chipmaker, said to have been confirmed by Arm chief Rene Haas, which expires this year.

But Reuters reports that Taiwanese chipmaker MediaTek is readying its own Windows on Arm SoC for when Qualcomm's exclusivity agreement runs out.

It claims that MediaTek's chip is set to launch late next year, and will be based on one of Arm's ready-made core designs rather than a custom design as with Qualcomm, but it isn't clear whether Microsoft has approved this chip for the Copilot+ Windows program.

In fact, MediaTek has not been hiding its intentions, as its plans for Windows on Arm were reported by The Register back in 2022, and were first mooted a year earlier at an earnings call in 2021.

A more serious roadblock could come in the shape of the legal action between Arm and Qualcomm over licensing, which could force Qualcomm and its partners to halt shipments of any Windows on Arm products. This was a major conversation topic among conference attendees at Computex, if Reuters can be believed.

The starting gun for the legal action was fired in 2022, following Qualcomm's acquisition of chip design startup Nuvia. This was seen as a play for Nuvia's designs and expertise in Arm CPU cores to compete against rivals.

Arm claimed that the licenses it had granted Nuvia could not be transferred to Qualcomm and used by it without Arm's permission, as reported by The Register at the time. When negotiations failed, it terminated the licenses with Nuvia, requiring the Snapdragon maker to stop using any processor designs developed under those agreements.

According to Reuters, Arm claims that the current SoC designs planned for Microsoft's Copilot+ laptops are direct technical descendants of Nuvia's chips. This would mean they and any products using them are likely to fall under an injunction if Arm were to prevail in court.

For its part, Qualcomm has always insisted that its existing Arm license rights cover its custom-designed CPUs, and that it is "confident those rights will be affirmed."

However, neither company responded to requests for comment about the matter.

In a recent filing with the US Securities And Exchange Commission (SEC), Arm disclosed that the trial for its case against Qualcomm is set for December 2024. It also disclosed that Qualcomm is currently "a major customer of ours" and that the Snapdragon maker accounted for 10 percent of Arm's total revenue for the fiscal year ended March 31, 2024, meaning that any victory against Qualcomm could be a Pyrrhic one.

Meanwhile, it was also recently rumored that GPU giant Nvidia could be preparing to enter the Windows on Arm arena with a "Copilot+" SoC  that pairs a cutting edge Arm's core design with GPUs based on its own recently introduced Blackwell architecture. ®

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