June 13, 2024

In the divided world of semiconductors, Arm is frequently compared to Switzerland.

The UK-based business is built on a foundation of neutrality. Rather than build chips, Arm merely designs their blueprints. The company then licences the IP to almost every major semiconductor maker without directly competing against them.

That approach — as well as the energy-efficient architectures — has driven Arm’s designs into over 95% of smartphones, alongside cars, computers, and countless other applications. But the independence that underpins Arm has become contentious. Meanwhile, a budding contender has emerged with a promise of true impartiality: the RISC-V Foundation. 

The anxieties about Arm’s surged in 2020, when Nvidia agreed to buy the business for $40 billion (€36.7bn). The deal would give control of Arm to the most valuable semiconductor company in the US. Nvidia could gain early access to the architectures, licence them for free, and sell its Arm-based chips at lower prices. Suddenly, the Switzerland of semiconductors looked like a very different place.

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“A privately-owned Arm would not only mean that the company’s future roadmap would change, influenced by the direction, funding, and presence of Nvidia,” Mark Lippett, the CEO of British semiconductor XMOS, tells TNW. “It would also mean that equal access to that technology might no longer be available.”

Arm’s customers weren’t the only people worrying. Around the world, regulators began probing the acquisition. In the US, the Federal Trade Commission sued to block the deal, arguing that Nvidia would become too dominant in the $500 billion (€459bn) chip market. Authorities in China, the EU, and the UK were also scrutinising the deal. As the regulatory headwinds swirled, the deal was blown into uncertainty.

Two years after the acquisition was announced, the transaction collapsed. Arm’s current owner, SoftBank, chose to pursue an initial public offering instead. With a target valuation of up to $70 billion (€64bn), the listing could be the world’s biggest IPO this year. Yet the new bidders could also be chipmakers with conflicting interests.

As the doubts about Arm’s neutrality whirled, attentions turned to RISC-V.

“It’s going to be a very credible implementation.

Founded in 2015, RISC-V produces low-cost, efficient, and flexible architecture that can be customised to specific use cases. Crucially, it’s also open source, which means no single entity controls it. As a result, clients could avoid partnering with Arm, and paying the provider to ensure compatibility.

The foundation also has a very different relationship with Switzerland. While Arm has a figurative link to the country, RISC-V’s connection is literal. In 2019, the organisation moved there from Delaware to avoid US trade curbs, which jeopardised free access to its tech. The relocation created another selling point for RISC-V, particularly in China — Arm’s biggest market.

In the US, the architecture is also attracting some eye-catching supporters. Among them is Android’s director of engineering, who wants RISC-V to become a “tier-1 platform” in the operating system — the same level as Arm. 

Earlier this month, backers of RISC-V formed a powerful new team. The chipmakers Qualcomm, NXP, Nordic Semiconductor, and Infeon, as well as Robert Bosch — the largest automotive supplier in the world — announced a new alliance to commercialise the architectures.

“It’s critical we maintain continuous access to efficient and powerful embedded microprocessors,” Svein-Egil Nielsen, chief technology officer of Nordic Semiconductor, said in a statement. “An open collaboration with like-minded companies to continually enhance innovative RISC-V microprocessor IP and ensure a robust and reliable supply of the technology is the ideal answer.”

RISC V prototype chip.