Intel Looking to Grant x86 ISA License to a Third Company – Chinese CPU Maker Spreadtrum

Usman Pirzada
Posted Sep 23, 2014
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[Op-Ed] The latest word on Intel’s x86 Architecture is that blue is planning to sell x86 licenses to a Chinese company called Spreadtrum. Only two companies enjoy Intel’s x86 (IA32) license, with the most notable being AMD and the less known being VIA. However, looks like Intel is going to add a fourth partner to the IA 32 club and this time it might be a game changer.tsmc_semiconductor_fab14_production

Chinese Semiconductor Company Spreadtrum to be Granted Intel’s x86 ISA License

Before we go into the gritty details of this story, a slight preliminary on the same. There are two licenses that Intel offers which are of concern to us right now. The first and the most important one is the IA 32 license, while the second is Intel 64, which is an implementation of AMD64 (which is an expansion of IA 32). This tech was invented by Intel and has been licensed to AMD and VIA, with Spreadtrum joining the group soon enough. Intel is the inventor of the IA 32 ISA so why didn’t it go for IA 64 you ask? Well, Intel did develop IA 64 but it was never adopted in the mainstream and went on to become the Intel Itanium series. In the meantime however, AMD expanded Intel’s IA 32 (x86) instruction set to AMD64. Intel then adapted this iteration into Intel 64, which we now commonly refer to as x86_64. Now the licensing of Intel 64/AMD64 is very confusing. And I am talking a timey-wimey wibbly wobley level confusing. I am not even sure where one license ends and the other begins. For the sake of retaining factual accuracy in this article, I will not go into much detail over here.

Now that you know that there are only two companies in existence apart from AMD and VIA that have the primary x86 license (IA 32) you can imagine how big a deal it is, if blue hands out the license to a third company. Particularly, if said company originates from the giant of an economy that is China. Spreadtrum is definitely one to watch out for, and if this is true, one to invest in. Now how exactly will Spreadtrum work? Rumor is, that when it enters into an agreement with Intel, it will develop the x86 products in-house but utilize Intel’s foundries for the manufacturing processes. Do you see the genius here? Intel is basically putting a price on the utter removal of the barrier to entry for this market. Spreadtrum will instantly benefit from the most advanced foundry and process technology on the planet while Intel will make some decent cash and fill its production capacity. Then there is the next question, how much will Spreadtrum matter?

As to that, I can’t really say, since the company has historically preferred the entry level segment of the market. This is of course the same segment that AMD currently rules over. But all that can change in the blink of an eye. Spreadtrum has received considerable backing by the Chinese government and will be able to produce dies on a smaller node than those produced by TSMC, which is the largest contract foundry on the planet. The x86 architecture is a diamond of a commodity and it has yet to be truly utilized in the Mobile segment. I for one will be keeping an eye on this company for the next few years.

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