ARM WrestlingEven if you’ve never heard of ARM, you interact with its technologies every day. The company makes the designs that manufacturers like Qualcomm use to produce chips. ARM-based CPUs power everything from smartphones to Internet of Things devices to, more recently, data centers.ARM’s ubiquity also has increasingly let smartphone companies produce their own chips , in a bid to wean themselves off of Qualcomm and create purpose-built processors. Huawei was an early ARM acolyte; its subsidiary, HiSilicon, has made ARM-based systems-on-chips since at least 2012.
Eric Hanselman, 451 ResearchConventional wisdom to this point had been that Huawei’s CPU self-reliance would be an important factor in fending off US offenses. Even if Google cuts ties—which it did, until receiving that 90-day waiver—Huawei could still create a functional operating system by creating a so-called Android fork, and convincing developers to tailor their apps to Huawei’s modified version. Huawei customers would have to live without the Google Play Store and related apps, but those felt like solvable problems, especially in a Chinese market that already has plenty of available alternatives.But the open-source version of Android is designed for ARM-based chips. It also works on x86 processors, made by Intel, AMD, and others, but those US-based companies had already cut ties with Huawei as part of the sanctions. Which means, absent ARM, Huawei’s most obvious backup plan effectively goes poof. The company would need not only to redesign its own chips from scratch—a process that takes years—it would find itself cut off from the world’s most popular operating system. This is like telling Coca-Cola that it can’t use carbonated water."All of the options are going to be painful,” says Eric Hanselman, chief analyst at 451 Research. “Changing out a core means you’ve got to do significant work not only in the silicon, but also in your software ecosystem. That’s not going to be simple.”
"All of the options are going to be painful."
A Slow FadeLosing access to ARM won’t cripple Huawei overnight, even in a worst-case scenario. The electronics giant will still be able to use its current, licensed technology, which means that it can continue to package any chips already in play. Mobile processors generally receive annual bumps; Huawei introduced its Kirin 980 SoC last fall, and it would have continued to ship it for the next several months regardless.But going forward, if the ban holds up, Huawei handsets will become frozen in time. The BBC reports that its upcoming chip, the Kirin 985, may have snuck in under the wire, but after that the company will be stuck on the latest and greatest ARM designs as of May 22, 2019. To become unstuck, it will need to embark on the costly, time-intensive process of designing its own core. The question is whether customers will bother to wait it out.The damage would also extend far beyond smartphones. “Every place where Huawei uses ARM IP would be impacted,” says Patrick Moorhead, founder of Moor Insights & Strategy, “all the way from embedded IP in tiny surveillance devices to large enterprise data center chips.”
What remains unclear, and could make the difference between devastation and inconvenience, is exactly which ARM technologies are impacted. It’s an international company, recently acquired by Japanese giant Softbank but with headquarters still in the UK. Huawei’s fate may hang in the balance of whatever slice of ARM’s offerings originated in the US, where the company has eight offices and a long-running research partnership with the University of Michigan.“If it is some of the system-on-chip capabilities, if it’s some of the architecture extensions, things like that, the resolution could be relatively simple. You just design that technology out,” says Hanselman. “If it happens to be core instruction set, or core logic, then that would be a whole lot more difficult.”
This is like telling Coca-Cola that it can’t use carbonated water.
“ARM is complying with all of the latest regulations set forth by the US government,” the company said in a statement. An ARM spokesperson declined to comment further.
Huawei has reportedly been stockpiling US-made parts for as long as a year, in anticipation of the current crackdown. But the ARM move potentially obviates that preparation, by limiting the extent to which Huawei can go it alone.
"Huawei values its relationships with all partners around the world and understands the difficult situation they are in," the company said in a statement. "Our top priority remains to continue delivering world-class products to our customers. We are hopeful this situation will be resolved and are working to find the best solution."It also underscores the stakes that the US has established. The Trump administration had previously brought Chinese tech company ZTE to the brink of collapse , but that imbroglio centered on specific deals ZTE made with Iran and North Korea, for which it offered specific remedies in the form of fines and a leadership overhaul. The Huawei tensions are much more amorphous; the White House has labeled it a national security threat without specifying why or how, leaving no clear path for resolution. Other companies seem likely to face a similar fate; The New York Times reported Tuesday that the US may blacklist Chinese surveillance company Hikvision over its role in oppressing the country's Uyghur population .And while there’s always a chance that a 90-day waiver for ARM will come through, as it did with Google, it won’t be a given. “License requests involving Huawei or its affiliates will be reviewed under a presumption of denial,” a Commerce Department spokesperson said in a statement.There are ways for Huawei to survive without ARM. But in the ongoing siege of one of China’s most important companies, the US has unquestionably cut off its most important supply route.
This story has been updated to include a statement from Huawei.
- Inside the hybrid digital-analog lives of children
- The Chernobyl disaster may have also built a paradise
- Inside China's massive surveillance operation
- Bluetooth's complexity has become a security risk
- I'm mad as hell about Square's shady automatic emails
- 🏃🏽♀️ Want the best tools to get healthy? Check out our Gear team's picks for the best fitness trackers , running gear (including shoes and socks ), and best headphones .
- 📩 Get even more of our inside scoops with our weekly Backchannel newsletter