In a recent blog, Intel suggests it may sue Microsoft over plans to run Windows 10 on Qualcomm's Snapdragon with x86 emulation.
Intel published a recent blog on its x86 that on the surface celebrates “nearly four decades of consistent investment and improvement.” But the text, attributed to Intel’s general counsel and an Intel fellow, includes a much more important and potentially market-shifting message on competition and the legality of emulation.
The blog details the advances in the x86 instruction set since Intel released the 8086 processor in 1978. It describes everything from MMX for multimedia to AVX-512, part of the upcoming Skylake-X architecture and more. Nearly every one of these advances has evolved the computing ecosystem unlike any company has been able to do in the same time frame.
Intel deserves the credit and the financial success from these inventions. Without Intel pushing forward, it is likely that the PC that exists today would be a lesser entity.
However, the second part of the blog takes a turn, referencing the days of patent enforcement of the 1990s surrounding the likes of AMD, Cyrix and VIA. Intel states that “enforcement actions have been unnecessary in recent years because other companies have respected Intel’s intellectual property rights.”
Here’s where it gets interesting:
However, there have been reports that some companies may try to emulate Intel’s proprietary x86 ISA without Intel’s authorization. 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 enforced patents relating to SIMD instruction set enhancements against Transmeta’s x86 implementation even though it used emulation.
In this paragraph, Intel is referring to the Windows 10 on Snapdragon program between Microsoft and Qualcomm. The effort was unveiled at CES in January, and the two companies made a joint announcement at Computex with partners Asus, HP and Lenovo as the flagship OEMs.
The emulation that Intel refers to is the software layer that will allow all applications built for Windows to run without change on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon. This capability is one of the key differentiators between Windows RT (which failed) and Windows 10 on Snapdragon.
Intel’s patent lawsuit with Transmeta resulted in only a set of counteracting settlements and a cross-licensing agreement. Transmeta would shutter its doors some time later due to disappointing sales.
The Intel blog goes on to suggest legal action on the Win 10 Snapdragon program. “Only time will tell if new attempts to emulate Intel’s x86 ISA will meet a different fate” it said, adding, “we do not welcome unlawful infringement of our patents, and we fully expect other companies to continue to respect Intel’s intellectual property rights.”
Intel appears to be collecting itself for a fight over what it considers unlawful infringement. The question is, with whom?
Next page: Inside Win 10 with ARM and the x86
The 8086 CPU debuted in 1978. (Image: Intel)