Yesterday Qualcomm announced a new chip for wearbles running the Android Wear Operating System (OS). Chips for watches, and wearables themselves, are not a terribly exciting market, but the RISC V element adds an interesting twist to the story, and so we have to ask is this a sign of things to come?
The market for wearables, which is mostly digital watches, is largely bifurcated into Apple and everyone else. Apple does a large business profitably selling Apple Watches,. And then there are dozens of other companies selling lightly branded devices through Amazon and Facebook. You do not see many of these in the US, but the price is right for many other markets where consumers are less likely to be tied into the Apple ecosystem. And while this means a decent volume of devices, the profits are much, much thinner. In terms of semis, Apple designs all the key Apple Watch chips themselves, and everyone else uses a combination of Qualcomm, Mediatek and others to power watches with a wide range of capabilities. Put simp[ly, this is not a great market for everyone else, at least not in terms of building large companies on top of it.
So normally, we would give little attention to Qualcomm launching this chip. It is not big business for Qualcomm, nor is it going to much alter the wearable market. But this chip is RISC V based. We wrote about RISC V yesterday, and so will skip the refresher on the subject, but this definitely adds an element of intrigue to the situation.
Qualcomm has become a big advocate of RISC V. Their relationship with Arm, tense at all times, is now outright hostile, with Arm suing them. A Qualcomm executive spoke highly about RISC V recently and has even go so far as to dangle the possibility that Qualcomm might port its mobile chips to RISC V someday far in the future. Qualcomm is very active in the project, as a founding member of the RISC V RISE software alliance and as a founder of an as-yet-unnamed, mystery RISC V joint venture. Qualcomm has had RISC V products in the works for many years, and so it comes as no surprise that they are now bringing another one of them into production. But this one runs Android.
A major thread in RISC V circles this year has been Google’s very vocal support of the project and their stated intention to get Android ready for RISC V. So Qualcomm’s roll-out of exactly that – a RISC V chip running a version of Android – could be a major milestone. But we say ‘could’ be, because maybe it is not.
This could just be a small product for Qualcomm, in a low priority segment. RISC V has done very well in IoT devices like wearables, so Qualcomm’s product may have been an easy choice. But we have to wonder if Qualcomm has anything else in the works. Is this chip a one-off for a small category or is it a sign of things to come?
We honestly do not know the answer to that question. A RISC V based cellular modem or applications processor (AP) is a much more complicated problem technically, involving massive software dependencies. This not something that Qualcomm, or anyone else, would bring to market lightly. It would require Qualcomm and Google to work together to bring support to the app development ecosystem. This is possible, but given the state of the relationship between the two companies seems like a significant challenge (more on that topic soon). But if they were to go down that path, they would have to do it gradually. Seed the market, test out the tools and seek developer feedback. And they would want to do that in a way that does not immediately threaten anyone – Arm, their customers or developers. Which means they would probably want to start with a less visible, product in a smaller market -like wearbles….