Why Huawei losing ARM is a big deal

News recently emerged that Arm Holdings (ARM) was banned from doing business with Huawei after the US Department of Commerce blacklisted the Chinese telecommunications company.

BBC News reported that ARM staff were told to halt all current and future contracts with Huawei, citing an internal company memo. ARM confirmed that it was complying with the restrictions enacted by the US government.

“[ARM] is having ongoing conversations with the appropriate US government agencies to ensure we remain compliant. ARM values its relationship with our long-time partner HiSilicon and we are hopeful for a swift resolution on this matter,” ARM said in a statement to media.

Since ARM is a UK-based company which is owned by a Japanese conglomerate, SoftBank Group, losing its ARM licence didn’t seem like an immediate concern.

However, according to the BBC’s initial report, the internal ARM memo states that the company’s designs feature “US origin technology”.

ARM has eight US offices listed on its website, with its US headquarters located in San Jose, California. It also has offices in Arizona, Massachusetts, Texas, and Washington.

No new smartphone processors without ARM architecture

Being blocked from doing business with ARM could be a devastating blow to Huawei.

While ARM itself does not make chips, its architecture underpins the processors used in every major smartphone.

Losing access to chips from companies like Intel, Qualcomm, Broadcom, and Micron would be a significant, but surmountable problem for Huawei.

Huawei could conceivably source the chips it needs for its devices from non-US providers, and whatever it couldn’t get elsewhere it could develop itself through its own chip division, HiSilicon.

HiSilicon already makes smartphone application processors and cellular modems for Huawei, but the company’s smartphone and server processors all rely on ARM architecture.

That doesn’t mean Huawei is entirely without options. There are open source projects like Amber, which is an ARM-compatible processor core design.

However, based on the current Amber documentation it would be a massive step backwards, and processors based on Amber would likely be much slower than ones based on modern ARM cores.

There are also alternative architectures that are not compatible with ARM, but considering how entrenched ARM architecture is, this is probably not a viable short-term option.

A drastic option for Huawei is to completely reverse engineer ARM’s architecture, but that could result in legal action and other unpleasantness.

Your phone won’t stop working overnight

It’s important to note that none of the sanctions introduced by the United States will cause your Huawei smartphone to stop working overnight.

Even the ARM ban does not appear to affect the chips HiSilicon is already licensed to build.

The BBC reported that HiSilicon can continue to make its existing chips and, citing a source at ARM, stated that Huawei’s upcoming Kirin 985 processor would not be affected by the ban.

Should the US ban remain in effect, though, Huawei will not be able to produce chips based on new technology from ARM.

The history of ARM

Arm Holdings, often referred to as ARM, traces its origins to the early years of the United Kingdom’s computer industry and to a company called Acorn Computers.

Acorn co-founder Chris Curry worked at Sinclair, an electronics company which produced calculators, radios, and DIY kits for various electronics.

While Apple Computer was dominating the PC market in North America and feuding with IBM, Acorn and Sinclair had become fierce rivals in the UK.

Sinclair is known for computers such as the ZX–80 and the ZX Spectrum, while Acorn developed machines like the BBC Micro and Acorn Archimedes.

During this time, Acorn decided to develop its own processor architecture based on the principles of UC Berkeley’s Reduced Instruction Set Computer (RISC).

While the ideas of RISC had been around for many years before that, Berkeley ended up giving its name to the concept. Stanford University was working on its own version of the idea, which it called Microprocessor without Interlocked Pipeline Stages (MIPS).

By 1987, Acorn released the first RISC-based home computer using its own processor architecture, which it called Acorn RISC Machine — ARM.

Acorn spun off the ARM division in 1990, calling it Advanced RISC Machines Ltd. The architecture was similarly renamed, and development continued in collaboration with Apple and VLSI Technology.

When the parent company of Advanced RISC Machines listed on the London Stock Exchange and NASDAQ as ARM Holdings in 1998, the architecture simply became ARM and the subsidiary developing it was renamed ARM Ltd.

ARM licensing and growth

ARM Holdings licensed its processor cores and instruction sets through various types of licences.

Huawei’s HiSilicon is an example of a Core Licensee, which integrates ARM-designed cores into its own CPU designs.

Samsung is an architectural licensee and designs its own cores. Under the terms of the licence, its processors must still fully comply with the ARM architecture.

While ARM’s technology was used in mobile phones, the rise of the smartphone is what turned the company into the powerhouse it is today.

Smartphones are essentially portable, battery-powered computers, and they required processors that are highly power-efficient. ARM architecture was a natural fit for this emerging technology.

As smartphones became the world’s dominant personal computing device, ARM’s revenue rocketed from under $400 million in 2006, to around $700 million in 2010, to $1.8 billion in 2018.

ARM is one of the world’s most important processor companies, and many consumers probably don’t even know it exists.

While the loss of its Google licence might have caused more public panic, losing its access to ARM technology will be a far greater concern for Huawei.

ARM revenue 2008-2018
ARM revenues from 2008 to 2018

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Why Huawei losing ARM is a big deal