In a recent blog, Intel suggests it may sue Microsoft over plans to run Windows 10 on Qualcomm's Snapdragon with x86 emulation.
Qualcomm would at first blush appear to be the target of Intel’s ire. Qualcomm builds its CPUs using an ARM architectural license for an architecture that is not directly compatible with the x86 ISA.
However, a software layer handles the emulation in this case. As I understand through several conversations, Microsoft is the author of the emulation layer that enables the global application support for these pending products.
In essence, this layer would accept the Intel x86 instructions from a program like Adobe Photoshop, translate them into instructions that the ARM-based Snapdragon processor understands and execute them on that hardware. Any applications that are pre-compiled for the Universal Windows Platform (UWP) do not need to go through this translation layer, as they run native ARM ISA code.
While it is possible that Qualcomm has built into Snapdragon some sort of infringing design characteristics, all indications tell me that Microsoft is the true target of Intel’s scornful eye. That would be an interesting direction for the silicon giant to take, as any attack on Microsoft--often considered its biggest industry partner--in this case is also an attack on the OEM partners working with Microsoft to release the Snapdragon platform on Windows 10.
This direction would put HP, Lenovo and Asus in the line of fire, though possibly just on the edge of it. Whether or not any of the three OEMs would have the ability or desire to fight back, Microsoft would surely do so.
The main argument from the Intel blog reads as if it centers around hardware-based emulation. The Transmeta emulation was a mixture of hardware and upgradeable firmware.
If my sources are correct and the Win 10 effort uses a purely software-based solution cooked up by Microsoft, then I believe that Intel has weaker legal footing. The Oracle vs. Google suit over use of Java in Android is a good case in point. It decided API emulation was fair use, allowing Google to develop code independently that resulted in Java compatibility for Android.
Emulation is a tactic used widely in software development. In fact, Intel and Google use emulation to support ARM applications running on the Android OS on Chromebooks and Android tablets today. The difference might be in the license that Intel holds with ARM, and that may end up as the crux in the debate. Intel feels it did everything by the book to acquire the ARM ISA license, while Qualcomm and/or Microsoft did not offer the same for the x86.
I asked for feedback from all parties involved, including Intel. So far, only Microsoft and Qualcomm have responded. Microsoft did not address the issue directly in its response:
Microsoft is collaborating with its ecosystem on a shared vision that starts with a close partnership at the silicon layer, with Intel and Qualcomm, and with its mobile operator partners to provide seamless eSim connectivity. Microsoft device partners including ASUS, HP, Huawei, Lenovo, VAIO, and Xiaomi, are committed to this new category of Always Connected PCs using eSim technology.
In addition, Microsoft announced Always Connected devices will be coming from ASUS, HP, and Lenovo, on the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chipset. These new devices will feature Windows 10, with always-on LTE connectivity and great battery life.
In its response, Qualcomm called the Intel blog “very interesting,” but seemed undeterred. “We look forward to the launch of the always-connected Windows 10 PC powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 later this year…This will change the future of personal computing,” it said.
In my view, Snapdragon running Windows 10 could deliver battery life and connectivity improvements beyond Intel’s current reach. Such competition would be welcome, forcing all parties to deliver better products.
Intel’s aggressive saber rattling may hope to nudge its OEMs and partners to change their plans. The first Windows 10 on Snapdragon systems are due by the end of the year. If there is to be more than saber rattling from Intel on this topic, we should know soon.
--Ryan Shrout is the founder and lead analyst at Shrout Research and the owner of PC Perspective.