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ARM: If other ARM chipmakers want to emulate Intel's x86 chips, that's fine

Although Qualcomm is the only ARM licensee to strike a deal with Microsoft to allow legacy Windows 10 apps to run on its processors, ARM executives say there are no legal limitations preventing others from doing so as well.

The PC, however, is less of an opportunity than it once was. Having been bought by Japanese giant SoftBank last year, ARM executives say they have a “Total Computing” plan in place to expand the company’s reach. A key target? The increasingly autonomous car, where ARM silicon can power the myriad sensor and control systems that are being built in.

After Microsoft tried and failed to put Windows on ARM with Windows RT, the latest partnership with Qualcomm is intriguing, as it puts legacy Windows applications on the ARM chips via emulation. Although it remains unclear which vendors will take advantage of the new ARM capabilities, it’s relatively clear that ARM hopes that its chips will slot into the $199 PC segment being vacated by Intel’s largely discontinued Atom chips.

Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 will be the first of the chips headed for those cheap PCs. But James Bruce, director of strategic alliances for ARM, said any other ARM licensee, which includes Samsung and Apple, could do the same. That deal “concerns the relationship between Microsoft and the SoC provider,” he said.

“Microsoft’s announcement is great for the overall ARM ecosystem,” Bruce added. “If you look at the engagement with Qualcomm, connectivity is really the thing for those types of devices. With built-in connectivity to the [chip,] how does that change the compute experience?”

For ARM, the Qualcomm-Microsoft alliance is one of the higher-profile wins for the company. But it’s not the most important. That role falls to the connected and increasingly autonomous car, where ARM microcontrollers and microprocessors are playing an ever-expanding role. For perspective, an ARM PC has probably one piece of ARM silicon; a car has between 80 and 100, according to Ian Smythe, senior director of marketing programs within ARM’s CPU Group.

And unlike the PC, which has become increasingly more centralized, it’s actually cheaper and easier for a car maker to have more distributed compute units rather than a large, centralized core, Bruce added. It may be counter-intuitive, but it all adds up to a number of potential opportunities, he said.

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