Intel Threatens to Sue Qualcomm Over Windows 10

Posted on June 9, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in Hardware, Mobile, Windows 10 with 84 Comments

Intel Threatens to Sue Qualcomm Over Windows 10

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.



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Comments (84)

84 responses to “Intel Threatens to Sue Qualcomm Over Windows 10”

  1. Thomas Parkison

    > Intel’s already-falling PC chips sales.

    Intel chip sales are in the toilet because there's been no reason to upgrade. When a five year old Core i5 3570k CPU is just now starting to show signs of being long in the tooth there's a problem.

    Hey Intel, I have an idea for you! Come out with a decent chip that actually improves performance as versus the usual 5% to 8% improvements that we've been recently seeing. I remember the days when CPU performance improved by leaps and bounds. Today? Not so much. Intel, you dug your own grave.

    • Waethorn

      In reply to Thomas Parkison:

      I think the problem is that every chip revision Intel brings out now needs a new motherboard, and nobody is upgrading anymore because it requires a new motherboard, and often new RAM. Remember when socket 775 was out? Same socket for many years. Mind you, you had to pay attention to chipset and voltage support, but it was still pretty flexible. The new stuff isn't. Every year there's a new mandatory chipset and/or socket swap-out.

      • Thomas Parkison

        In reply to Waethorn:

        That's true too, I hate the whole "new socket of the week" game that Intel plays. It's nothing but a cash-grab for them since it makes you have to buy a new chipset which of course is made by... you guessed it. Intel. So not only do they get money from you when you buy their CPU but they also get money from you when you buy a motherboard with their chipset on it,

        In a lot of ways I was hoping the AMD Ryzen would be the Intel-killer but unfortunately it didn't turn out like that. Sure, AMD is about to absolutely kill Intel in the high-end server market but as for desktops, not so much. If you want to game on the PC you have no other choice but to go Intel. Ryzen's IPC is nowhere near good enough for many games that are still mostly single-threaded beasts and that's where Ryzen sort of falls flat.

        • Waethorn

          In reply to Thomas Parkison:

          I don't know what games you're playing, but unless it's an indie title, I can't point out a single triple-A title that will run on a single-core processor. Everything requires a dual-core and many require a quad-core, and even so, many of those won't accept Hyper-threading as an alternative.

          • Thomas Parkison

            In reply to Waethorn:

            Blizzard Entertainment's Starcraft 2, largely a single-threaded beast of a game that's still played by a huge amount of people. Runs badly on Ryzen, at least from what I've heard.

            • Greg Green

              In reply to Thomas Parkison:

              Part of that is due to a lack of optimization for Ryzen. Some companies have done that and seen 20% to 30% performance increase. However that optimization is up to the publishers and probably will not happen for older games.

      • Darmok N Jalad

        In reply to Waethorn:

        One argument I've always heard against Intel is they love to sell chipsets just as much as CPUs. Chipsets may even be more profitable for them, since they aren't that complex. I think that was one reason it took Intel so long to abandon the northbridge memory controller and adopt a high-speed processor interconnect. AMD essentially forced their hand at just about every real performance advancement.

    • skane2600

      In reply to Thomas Parkison:

      Using current technology we are never again going to see big improvements in CPU performance no matter what vendor is making them. It's a matter of physical limits. Today CPU makers tout the number of cores like transistor radio makers did about the number of transistors in their radios with similarly exaggerated benefits.

      • Waethorn

        In reply to skane2600:

        This is their play now. It used to be that clock speed was the preferred metric to use until AMD and ARM started playing the multi-core game. Now, that's all that companies talk about. We've just moved on from the clock speed game.

        • skane2600

          In reply to Waethorn:

          In the old days an improvement in clock speed would translate to better performance across all applications. More cores only improve performance to the extent that software has been written to take advantage of them.

          I recall when multiple cores first arrived it was said that software would no longer have a free ride for better performance. Actually, it was the other way around. Intel benefitted greatly from the fact that buying a new PC with a faster CPU would result in better computer performance and this created a lot of demand to replace PCs with faster ones and thus faster profits for Intel.

  2. chrisrut

    Really seems rather late in the game for Intel and Qualcomm to be getting into a pissing contest about this; how could this be?

    OK, here's a conspiracy theory: Intel is alluding to some other company... a Google or an Apple trying to do an end run...

    • hrlngrv

      In reply to chrisrut:

      I'm not a lawyer, so this is a guess: if heretofore Qualcomm hadn't implemented any Intel emulation circuitry but they would be going forward, there may be a legal basis for Intel seeking an injunction. Purely software emulation may be legal but hardware not. If there's some basis for advancing legal theory in US courts, Intel would only be doing to Qualcomm what MSFT has done to Android phone makers: excercising IP rights.

      OTOH, this may be Son of Oracle v Google.

      • chrisrut

        In reply to hrlngrv:

        Well, right. But I'm not questioning the basis or validity of Intel's complaint... I'm trying to wrap my arms around the notion that Intel - with MS in the middle - and many, many billions already on the table - decided to backpedal so furiously just months before product release. Sound's like Intel threatening to bite a cyanide pill... no winners.

        • hrlngrv

          In reply to chrisrut:

          Intel beginning to yell lawsuit at this time rather than earlier may be tactical, meant to inflict as much pain on MSFT and Qualcomm as possible. Do this too early, and MSFT and Qualcomm wouldn't have invested considerable sums yet. Do this too late, and some legal doctrines may infer you waited too long to object. Time it just right: get them to spend a fair amount but still be far enough away from initial release to be able to claim timeliness in objecting.

          Business disputes like this aren't exercises in manners.

  3. gvan

    Could this be why Microsoft Surface is not supporting Intel's Thunderbolt?

  4. rameshthanikodi

    Wait, so no one can make a PC processor without paying rent money to Intel? And isn't the current x86 ISA basically invented by AMD which Intel bought and licensed back? It's a no wonder the ARM ecosystem is in such a better shape. What about x86 instructions from 10 or 20 years ago? No FRAND on those? The patent system is so broken, but you guys continue to wonder why China is kicking your ass. I bet this case wouldn't hold up in China. I mean, how is it that you are allowed to protect something that is evidently easy enough to copy?

    Also, isn't the emulation happening in Windows 10, i.e. software emulation? So even a software vendor that uses x86 isn't allowed to make it compatible with ARM? Sounds crazy to me if true.

    Qualcomm and Microsoft should take this to the courts, perhaps just pay whatever stupid price Intel is asking for, if only to just make them STFU.

    • CaedenV

      In reply to rameshthanikodi:

      Well... you can make a processor... just not an x86 processor. To my knowledge only Intel, AMD, and VIA have access to core x86 technology. IBM uses the PowerPC architecture, and just about everyone else uses some variation of ARM.

      • veermaharaj

        In reply to CaedenV:
        Back in the day, AMD reverse engineered the Intel processors and later on became an avenue for Intel to hand off extra work to. However other than VIA who have basically forgotten about x86 products to focus on SOC platforms, AMD developed the current X64 technology that Intel has to license back from them and as a result there is some odd co competition going on there.
        Intel has never given a license to any other company to make x86 compatible processors. Id assume that also goes for systems that can emulate its command system as well.

        If anything that was their downfall. There could have been dozens of companies innovating the x86 platform, instead we only have two.

    • CompUser

      In reply to rameshthanikodi: "And isn't the current x86 ISA basically invented by AMD which Intel bought and licensed back?" If I remember correctly, AMD had become a substantial threat to Intel, had even come close to taking the market lead at one point, so Intel took them to court. The courts awarded some vital AMD technologies to Intel, and it nearly destroyed AMD. I guess Qualcomm is becoming too much of a threat now, so Intel is threatening to do the same thing to them. And it won't be about who is right or wrong, it will be about who is the bigger, wealthier corporation with the biggest, baddest legal department, which is Intel.

    • Waethorn

      In reply to rameshthanikodi:

      It's business. Microsoft knows the score because they aggressively pursue those that would infringe their own software IP unless they sign a licensing agreement.

  5. CaedenV

    In the x86 space you have Intel who is the clear leader, AMD who up until a month ago had given up on the technology (and honestly, even their latest effort is only interesting on a price basis rather than tech advancement), and then VIA who AMD and Intel have cornered out of anything beyond 1990s tech and could not make a decent product if they tried.

    Intel is the monopoly, and their CPU improvements have been stagnant for the past 5 years. New chips are lower power, or offer more cores, the IPC has been at a near stand-still for a very long time now. If Intel does this, then it is only a sign that x86 is truly a legacy tech with no legs to stand on, and which will phase out over time rather than retaining market share.

    If anyone should feel threatened by this it is AMD. x86 emulation really upsets the low cost/performance market, not the gamer/server market where Intel makes all their money. I am rather surprised that Intel is making the stink rather than AMD for once.

  6. Roger Ramjet

    It should be noted though that Qualcomm has other problems with another Godzilla. So, the odds of their co-exiting the microprocessor market with Intel are about even ...

    An interesting thing is that in that case, the Qualcomm lawyer will probably have to mount an argument somewhat close to the opposite of what she will say to the Judge in the Intel suit, or as corporate lawyers may call it, Tuesday.

    I would think the veiled jibe on exiting the market was probably directed at Microsoft, rather than Qualcomm, essentially it is saying ... your latest fling will soon be gone (we will force them out from either the microprocessor market, or in this case, the x86 sector) . And it will be just us, just as we have been for 40 years.

    Anyway the case will be interesting. If Microsoft did not obtain any special permission from Intel to emulate prior (even when they were using Intel architectures), I would think Intel would have lost a big component of their argument that their permission is needed for software emulation. And the converse is probably even more true.

    Beyond that, this is potentially a big argument of semiconductor vs OS providers. So, Qualcomm is probably even sorta disadvantaged too, if they win this case. I can imagine this scrambing a lot of alliances, because if it was formerly in doubt whether you could emulate, and it becomes generally acceptable, well software experts just gained more power over the silicon, no?

  7. Mark from CO


    Seems like Intel is using one of Microsoft's more successful tactics - threaten everyone to paying royalties on patents being used by Android OEMs.

    Perhaps what goes around, comes around...

    Mark from CO

  8. F4IL

    How is it possible that msft and qcomm didn't see this? msft is rumored to have an ARM version of windows server as well. Did assume intel's going to sign off the market to ARM? If intel drags them to court they'll win.

    • Roger Ramjet

      In reply to F4IL:

      Probably a little too early to declare winner or loser. It is highly likely that Microsoft and Qualcomm did see it. It's just the nature of the beast, no pun intended, that sometimes litigation has to ensue to clarify things going forward as each side digs in on what they perceive as their rights. It's not like this would be the first or last court case between Tech giants.

  9. Waethorn

    I bet this will get as messy as the Google vs. Oracle suit.

  10. Patrick3D

    The "Crawford" patent expired over 7 years ago, no doubt most of the other x86 patents have as well.

  11. Marc Clarke

    I think Intel has overestimated their strength in this case. It would be a shame if future builds of Windows 10 were no longer optimised for Intel CPUs but rather AMD and ARM ones instead. What would happen to Intel's performance lead then?

    • skane2600

      In reply to Marc Clarke:

      If MS has in fact been optimizing for Intel at the expensive of AMD, it's not something that is readily apparent and is unlikely to have had any significant effect on AMD's sales. More inside baseball that the greater market is oblivious to.

  12. veermaharaj

    That's a nice architecture you got over there. Would be a same if someone were to... emulate it :D

  13. veermaharaj

    More than likely the core operating system has been compiled to run on the ARM chips natively and the x86/x64 apps that haven t been recompiled will have to fall back on the emulation, but if all it takes is for app developers is to recompile for ARM, that should be something.

    But if the new CSHELL becomes part of this, we might see full fledged windows on phones and mini tablets with the ability to run legacy applications. Welcome back stylus :D

    • skane2600

      In reply to veermaharaj:

      X64 programs won't be emulated based on what MS has stated. As far as recompiling is concerned, Windows on ARM would have to capture a very significant slice of the Windows market before X86 developers could justify having to maintain two different versions of their programs.

      The inherent problems of trying to run legacy applications on smartphones' relatively tiny screens isn't going to be solved by CSHELL or any other initiative.

  14. Angusmatheson

    I just can't believe that emulation - which in my experience is always a little slower and janky- on an ARM chip which is already slower than an x86 chip is going to be a good experience. I think it was Paul to who talked about the samsung tablets - the x86 runs chromeOS apps well and the android apps poorly and the ARM based one runs android apps well and the chromeOS apps poorly. That is as I would expect. And all the delays and problems with android on chromeOS and the scuttleling of Andromeda makes me think Google found this harder than they had expected. The only X86 programs that matter are high intensity legacy like photoshop and Lightroom and really old complicated enterprise that can't be written again. I bet those will be the hardest to emulate and the least forgive to any slowness. I admit I can't wait to see how this turns out! (I can't remember how much backwards compatibility Apple had when they went from PowerPC to x86. When they went from x86 to ARM for the iPhone they didn't have any backwards comparability. Funny that Microsoft has never had to to this until they went to ARM with windows RT - that time leaving the legacy behind didn't do so well).

  15. BBoileau

    As an observation, when dominant companies exercise these legal pursuits instead of moving with the market as it changes, it is the beginning of the end for them. Intel needs to embrace change and apply its resources to better compete with Qualcomm. It's mobile chips have yet to compete well. Drop the legal protection of your rights to an old architecture and focus instead on a viable competitive product.

  16. v_2samg

    Ok. Few things:

    1. The so called emulation is not done at the hardware level. It is done by the WOW layer in Windows. So Intel's direct target is Microsoft and not Qualcomm.
    2. Unlike what most people believe, this is not a simple emulation, but more of a dynamic ISA recompilation.
    3. Apple did the same thing with Rosetta when they moved from PPC to x86. No one complained then?
  17. TimHanna

    Simplest solution is for Qualcomm to buy AMD, the x86 emulation licenses would be transferred.

  18. TimHanna

    I suppose the emulation could also be accomplished by Windows doing a pre-recompilation of the executable into a new instruction set. I wonder if Intel's patents have any way to prevent a translation of an application.
  19. Narg

    Since Intel gave up on the Atom chip, I'm glad MS went to a well respected ARM chip designer to get more done on lightweight/mobile computing. Intel deserves the well intended competition. We end users should only be happy. Intel needs to suck it up and do better.

  20. Bill Russell

    "To ensure that the PC market is not hamstrung by an Intel monopoly"

    But their own Windows PC OS market monopoly was apparently OK, though.

    It would be interesting if a company actually expressed concerns about its own product being too dominant and advising people to try some other OS options to help encourage healthy competition for the greater good. Maybe that's what they did in a way, giving Apple the $100 million life support in the late 90's. Probably wished they hadn't now, though.

    This sort of parallels what Android and Linux devices went through and MS came at everyone saying they violated like 300 undisclosed patents or so and now extract healthy license fees from about every OEM who uses Android.

    Now Intel is acting like MS is/was just with a hardware architecture rather than an OS.

  21. mebby

    Are any ChromeBooks using Intel parts?

  22. ben55124

    Back to WinRT. Just let it install apps compiled for ARM. Then they can just ask Google and Apple to click the ARM checkbox when building Chrome and iTunes.

  23. joeaxberg

    Oh wow! Get the popcorn this one could be epic.

  24. evox81

    I had been assuming that WIndows on ARM would be compiled to run on ARM, and it would be WIndows doing the emulation here, and the SD835 was simply powerful enough to facilitate it.

    • Narg

      In reply to evox81:

      Seems to me that x86 emulation is a stop gap move. Windows has always had "WoW" or "Windows on Windows" meaning it could run multiple hardware differing compiled versions of software at the same time. So both x86 and ARM software will likely run, with maybe a few caveats.

  25. dnation70

    i think intel will be suing a lot of people because of amd's big jump

  26. Waethorn

    Not sure what happened with AMD's ARM IP, but they had a modular, but universal chip design where they could drop in either x86 or ARM CPU cores and utilize higher-end full DirectX-class GPU cores and fast memory controllers. I get the feeling that their server ARM chips never went anywhere, which is why they haven't expanded into the consumer market with it. The chips were built with Linux in mind, but Torvalds has been somewhat belligerent towards ARM's lack of a common interface, and you have this steering committee, Linaro, trying to get him straightened out. Unless an OEM or chipmaker puts their full effort towards support patches, like the Raspberry Pi foundation or Hardkernel, there is no real support, and I think AMD figured that Red Hat would do all the work.

  27. skane2600

    " Snapdragon 835 chipset, which is so powerful it can emulate x86 and run Windows desktop applications."

    Clearly Intel is concerned about this possibility, but just how "powerful" the 835 will be at emulating the x86 remains to be seen. Yes, I know about the demos and yes, I know about demos.

    • Bill Russell

      In reply to skane2600:

      I just have always felt that the stuff you need full windows for - powerful desktop creation/developer applications - who is going to bother with a wimpy ARM device for that. Plus its 32-bit emulation only. Where is the market for this? Perhaps I could run classic winamp on ARM and even then what consumer cares, other than those having an interest in microprocessor architectures.

      • Waethorn

        In reply to Bill Russell:

        I think the reason that Microsoft is sticking to 32-bit is so that they can lock OEM's into a "low-performance, low-cost PC" hardware profile and limit RAM to 4GB. They'll have other hardware maximum limits to abide by, also likely because of Intel's persuasion with Microsoft. Intel won't want any ARMv8 systems with 8GB of RAM running Windows when the specs are in line with the Surface Pro.

  28. StagyarZilDoggo

    I can't believe the guys at Qualcomm haven't thought about this. Seems so obvious in hindsight...

  29. MutualCore

    Intel senses their increasing irrelevance. Between Ryzen on one side, Windows on ARM on another, Apple, Android... Intel is going to be extinct soon.

    • Narg

      In reply to MutualCore:

      Intel going extinct would be a major problem in the computing world. Seriously though, while they are losing in some areas of computing these days, they are still too big to bring down that easily. Shrink to a fraction of what they were? Yes. But they will likely never go away.

  30. Shel Dyck

    the legal dept didn't investigate this before the work was begun??

  31. Daekar

    I didn't realize that it was actually illegal to emulate an instruction set without licensing it. Guess the price of those ARM-based Windows devices is going to be a bit higher than we expected.

  32. mmcewan

    Patents expire, there is no perpetual lock up that way. There would have to be infringement on relatively young patents for Intel to defend.

  33. edboyhan

    I think it was Peter Bright who pointed out that most of intel's X86 patents have expired. Only some of the Simd, and other graphics extension instructions are still under patent protection.

    Also at Build after the desktop bridge presentation, I had a discussion with a couple of MS staffers about how desktop apps might be made to run on ARM. It was pointed out that most (if not all) of W10 runs natively on ARM due to the WinRT OS development. Also any managed code apps will also run natively since they compile to IL which is JIT interpreted. The JIT interpreter runs natively on ARM. Finally since the W8 days MS has been working to convert many W32 APIs to ARM. Thus X86 emulation is likely to be an Edge use case. Also it's not clear what happens when W32 apps are run through the desktop bridge under Visual Studio, and if they are targeted to an ARM solution?

    I don't think Intel's posturing will have much effect -- there may be a few desktop apps that might be prevented from running on ARM if Intel decides to play hard ball, but that's all.