Last week saw an interesting shift in programmable SoC devices, especially in licensing IP.
XMOS Semiconductor signed a deal last Thursday, Oct. 24, to use ARM-based chips from Silicon Labs alongside its own deterministic multicore silicon in a single package. Part of this is an acknowledgement of the strength of the ARM ecosystem of software, despite XMOS giving away tools and software IP for its programmable I/O interfaces.
It's a very interesting move. It gives XMOS an ARM M3 core with ultra-low-power states as well as a whole bunch of commodity interface IP such as I2C and USB, which is very useful in its target market.
Now the shift is that XMOS has taken an ARM license, even though at this point it is not designing with the core. This is starting to sound like the Microsoft licensing model. To get a license for a Microsoft desktop operating system, you had to agree to pay a royalty on every PC shipped, whether it shipped with that operating system or not.
ARM is very supportive of the move, says XMOS CEO Nigel Toon, although he won't say if XMOS has paid any money to ARM. This makes a lot of sense for ARM: It's good to know where the cores are going, especially if it is through routes that are separate from the original licensee. It also helps ARM consolidate its grip on the market.
This will be interesting in view of the new ARM v8-R architecture that has also been just announced. The cores, which will be launched as products next year, add more determinism and virtualization for automotive and industrial designs with the ability to run an RTOS and a mainstream operating system such as Android side-by-side. Silicon devices using the cores are expected sometime in 2015, so a multi-die approach for XMOS is a good interim step. Most of these cores are used in ASICs at the moment, but v8-R is likely to see that move to more standard parts for high-performance, low-latency, real-time industrial applications -- just the market that XMOS targets.
But XMOS takes the view that its added value is the additional 500 MIPS of deterministic processing power for applications such as Ethernet AVB, so it may be that this is not so temporary, but is a way of adding the latest cores and interfaces into the product mix. There's a hit on margin, to be sure, but the cost of the silicon is less relevant than the ease of programming, the tool ecosystem, and the routes to market, so maybe XMOS is onto something.
If this approach is replicated by other specialist silicon suppliers, then seeing ARM licenses without designing an ARM in will be more and more common. It may be unlikely that ARM will seek an additional royalty or licensing fee, but it's still possible, and that raises some very interesting industry dynamics.