If you enjoy the spectacle of tech giants circling each other in court like some old “Godzilla vs. King Kong” movie, then buckle up. This one has the potential to be a battle for the ages.
In one corner, we have Microsoft and its new best buddy Qualcomm, which is on hand to deliver the software giant from its biggest but most terrible partner, Intel. Qualcomm is helping Microsoft bring Windows 10—full Windows 10, not some sad mobile thing—to the ARM platform courtesy of its Snapdragon 835 chipset, which is so powerful it can emulate x86 and run Windows desktop applications.
In the other corner, we have Intel. Which just published a celebratory blog post about the 40th anniversary of its x86 chipset, which forms the basis for the PC and thus for the success of Windows and Microsoft.
And it has used this post to issue a threat. A threat to Qualcomm. And to Microsoft. Neither of which is mentioned in this post by name.
Oh, yeah. It just got excellent.
So let’s skip all the baloney about “40 years of x86 blah blah blah,” and focus on the important stuff. The threats.
“Intel’s innovations have achieved spectacular commercial success, and Intel carefully protects its intellectual property rights in these inventions,” the post—credited to Steven Rodgers and Richard A. Uhlig—introduction reads.
“Intel invests enormous resources to advance its dynamic x86 instruction set architecture (ISA), and therefore Intel must protect these investments with a strong patent portfolio and other intellectual property rights,” the relevant bit explains. “That relentless instruction set innovation translates into a deep and dynamic patent portfolio with over 1,600 patents worldwide relating to instruction set implementations.”
Now it gets interesting.
“Intel carefully protects its x86 innovations, and we do not widely license others to use them,” the post continues, suggesting two things. That Qualcomm has not licensed Intel’s “x86 innovations.” And that Intel isn’t particularly inclined to do so, given that Qualcomm’s entry into the PC market will negatively impact Intel’s already-falling PC chips sales.
Furthermore, Intel has aggressively pursued those companies that do violate its intellectual property. And it isn’t shy about reminding us of the results.
“Over the past 30 years, Intel has vigilantly enforced its intellectual property rights against infringement by third-party microprocessors,” the two explain. “One of the earliest examples was Intel’s enforcement of its seminal ‘Crawford 338 Patent’. In the early days of our microprocessor business, Intel needed to enforce its patent rights against various companies including United Microelectronics Corporation, Advanced Micro Devices, Cyrix Corporation, Chips and Technologies, Via Technologies, and, most recently, Transmeta Corporation. Enforcement actions have been unnecessary in recent years because other companies have respected Intel’s intellectual property rights.”
Until now, apparently. But here’s my favorite bit:
“However, there have been reports that some companies may try to emulate Intel’s proprietary x86 ISA without Intel’s authorization,” the post reads.
Sorry. “Reports”? LOL.
What there have been are announcements. Announcements made by Microsoft—again, Intel’s biggest and closest partner—and by Qualcomm. Which is, again, Intel’s biggest competitor.
Then Intel goes after the emulation angle, because the Snapdragon 835 emulates x86.
“Emulation is not a new technology, and Transmeta was notably the last company to claim to have produced a compatible x86 processor using emulation (‘code morphing’) techniques,” Intel explains. “Intel enforced patents relating to SIMD instruction set enhancements against Transmeta’s x86 implementation even though it used emulation. In any event, Transmeta was not commercially successful, and it exited the microprocessor business 10 years ago.”
I suspect that Qualcomm will not be “exiting the microprocessor business” anytime soon. Indeed, depending on how you choose to measure such things, Qualcomm is already bigger than Intel in this market. And given how the market is evolving, it’s perhaps more likely that Intel would exit this business before Qualcomm does.
But let’s continue enjoying the threats, shall we? (Remember: This post is ostensibly about celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Intel x86 chipset.)
“Only time will tell if new attempts to emulate Intel’s x86 ISA will meet a different fate,” Intel writes, apparently alluding to some future court date. “Intel welcomes lawful competition … However, we do not welcome unlawful infringement of our patents, and we fully expect other companies to continue to respect Intel’s intellectual property rights. Strong intellectual property protections make it possible for Intel to continue to invest the enormous resources required to advance Intel’s dynamic x86 ISA, and Intel will maintain its vigilance to protect its innovations and investments.”
So, two things.
First, it’s pretty clear that Microsoft’s push to bring Windows 10 to ARM is really about one thing, and one thing only: To ensure that the PC market is not hamstrung by an Intel monopoly. In the old days, other firms—AMD, most obviously, but also others—enabled a more competitive market. But now Microsoft has turned to a firm, Qualcomm, that actually has leverage in terms of volume and pricing. And that is a real threat to Intel. Hence this week’s warning.
And second, it looks like Qualcomm is going to have to attempt to license Intel’s intellectual property before Windows 10 on ARM can even happen. I’m sure Intel’s price will be reasonable.