Part of the web was buzzing about the fact that China’s ministry of technology is trying to define a ‘unified” processor architecture, based either on an existing platform, or a new one. By “processor architecture”, we mean “instruction set architecture” or (ISA), like X86 is for Intel. The instruction set is basically “opcodes” (or operation code, which are the most basic machine-instructions), that will be understood and executed by processors. For example all AMD and Intel processors run on the X86 ISA.
Despite making the headlines only today, this is not “news” for industry insiders who say that this has been going on for “months” (if not for years). The Chinese government is being lobbied hard by Chinese companies who complain about the $5M price tag to license an ARM Cortex A9 design (we can’t confirm the price, but it doesn’t sound so bad). Instead, they would like to have an cheaper intellectual property that they could use/afford.
If you look at it on paper, the idea sounds good: if China could develop its own ISA, then license it for very cheap, or free, to Chinese companies this would create an undeniable advantage to whoever can license this. Of course, it’s easier said than done, and while it’s very possible to develop an ISA, making great chips and convincing the rest of the eco-system to rally around it will prove more difficult – at least in the short and medium term. In the long term, everything is possible. The closest examples would be China’s own DVD or 4G-LTE standards – it’s close, but not really comparable. Both will save Billions for years to come, and could even generate licensing revenues.
If that was ever going to happen, companies like Intel, AMD, ARM and others may be in trouble (except if their ISA is chosen), but fret not, we would certainly see this one coming. In fact, just last year, I wrote an article entitled “China Aims to Sell Homegrown CPUs To The World, Eventually“. The technical challenges that China faced then remain the same, but this time, it seems that the country is ready to subsidize (award public contracts) push this new platform (surely someone in an international trade organization will complain).
No need to “create” an eco-system
Of course some are quick to criticize the new ISA idea, saying that it will not have the same “eco-system” that established ISA enjoy. It’s very true, but it is in fact not *that* hard: within the server space, it is completely conceivable to have a very decent Linux distribution that works on the Chinese ISA, and in the consumer space, “all it takes” is to convince Microsoft that this is worth porting Windows to. That will be particularly true if Microsoft doesn’t want Linux to have a chance to be the major platform in China.
The ISA actually doesn’t matter so much, if the rewards are big enough to attract platform developers. Once major platforms (like Windows or Linux/Android) have been ported, most app developers don’t even have to care about which ISA their app is running on as those details are mostly taken care of by the compilers.
When? At least a decade, or more
In the end, the question is how much, and how long China is willing to invest in a new ISA that will most likely produce CPUs that are not competitive at first – at least in terms of performance. This is a very high-stakes game that will be played for over more than a decade, but keep in mind that although there is a lot of work to be done, China has some very decent IP and chip-making know-how. Let’s wait and see…