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China tech

Cutting off Arm: China leads exodus from top chip architect

Chinese chipmakers adopt open-source solutions to attain self-sufficiency

Jeff Zhang, Alibaba Group's chief technology officer and president of Alibaba Cloud Intelligence, unveiled  in September the company's AI Chi, which is designed to enhance its cloud computing power. (Photo courtesy of Alibaba)

TOKYO -- China is stepping up its efforts to break its dependence on chips based on proprietary technology from SoftBank Group-owned processor designer Arm, employing open-source alternatives to bolster its self-sufficiency and resilience against U.S. trade war retaliation.

E-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding's Pingtouge Semiconductor is on the leading edge of the move away from Arm, which has become the global de facto global standard for processors in mobile devices.

In July, Pingtouge unveiled the XuanTie 910, a processor that will power technology for the "internet of things" and 5G communications.

The XuanTie 910 employs RISC-V, an open-source instruction set architecture based on a project begun in 2010 at the University of California, Berkeley. Pingtouge hosted a panel featuring the commercialization of RISC-V -- pronounced "risk five" -- at a Shanghai semiconductor expo this September.

"The IoT market is in the middle of developing, so there are plenty of opportunities," XuanTie 910 lead developer Meng Jianyi said at the panel. Meng touted the processor as able to "strike a balance between power-saving and high performance."

Building up China's ability to develop and manufacture its own semiconductors is a key goal of the government's "Made in China 2025" strategy issued in 2015. The plan seeks to catapult China to the forefront of the world's modern economies, but the trade war with the U.S. that has seen bans on chip exports to major Chinese companies has added new urgency to the effort.

Made in China 2025 sets self-sufficiency goals for semiconductors at 40% for 2020 and 70% for 2025.

Self-sufficiency is viewed through the lens of national security. But China had reached only 15% for semiconductors in 2018, putting the targets in question.

"While U.S. pressure may affect the operations of companies such as Huawei Technologies in the short run, on a medium- to long-term basis, Chinese manufacturers will increase procurement from within China, and it will result in the growth of domestic equipment and materials makers," said Lung Chu, president of industry association SEMI China.

The country is slow in developing semiconductor production equipment and materials. But China has produced the likes of HiSilicon, a world-class semiconductor designer owned by Huawei.


Xiaomi's wearable Mi Smart Band 4 has a new swim-track function and uses a Huami chip based on the RISC-V architecture.  (Photo courtesy of Xiaomi) 

Smartphone chip designs have grown dependent on licenses from Arm, which is plotting to extend its reach into devices for the internet of things and elsewhere.

The Trump administration imposed sanctions on Huawei earlier this year, through Arm says it still does business with the Chinese company in compliance with Commerce Department guidelines.

Nevertheless, many in China worry the tech sector will be cut off from Arm intellectual property, depending on how trade frictions play out. Chinese chipmakers are increasingly crafting backup plans based on RISC-V.

Government-owned Unisoc Technologies announced in May the launch of a Bluetooth chip to control wireless headsets.

"Because Bluetooth is a mature communications technology, related semiconductors can be fully designed using RISC-V," said Hideki Maeno of IHS Markit.

Huami, an affiliate of Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi, announced this August the launch of wearable devices with chips developed in-house. Huawei has joined the RISC-V Foundation, which spearheads the architecture's development and includes Google and IBM as members. HiSilicon appears to have begun developing RISC-V chips.

Such Chinese moves are welcomed in the foundation's camp.

"The spread of RISC-V in China could be the gateway to global adoption," said CEO Shumpei Kawasaki of foundation member Software Hardware & Consulting, a chip design concern with Japanese, American and Vietnamese bases.

But chipmakers in Japan, the U.S. and Europe have lagged in adopting RISC-V. As the world's largest semiconductor market, China is expected to lead the way.

Since the foundation is located in the Silicon Valley area, a hotbed of resistance to U.S. President Donald Trump's trade policies, the group is ready to continue working with China.

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