Why would a company sue to keep its latest tech from coming out? Ask Arm – USA TODAY

Chipmaker Qualcomm is developing an Arm processor for laptops that, on paper at least, beats all comers, including Apple’s M2 and anything Intel and AMD can come up with.
And you’ll never guess what company is suing to try to keep it from ever coming out.
Give up? It’s Arm. That’s right. The licensing company that stands to collect royalties for each of those performance-packed processors is suing to prevent Qualcomm from making the chips.
You would think that Arm would be rooting for the Qualcomm chip to succeed. Virtually every smartphone ever made is powered by an Arm chip. But that market is maturing, so future growth will depend on inroads into new markets. And the planned Qualcomm chip may represent Arm’s best chance at relevance in Windows laptops, where it’s languished for more than a decade.
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But as it now stands, the chip may hurt Arm more than it helps. It has been dubbed the Qualcomm Oryon.
The legal wrangling centers on whether Qualcomm has the right to use game-changing processor design technology from a startup it bought last year. Arm claims that Qualcomm must negotiate a new license to use the startup’s innovations. Qualcomm says that’s not necessary because it already has an Arm license that’s far broader than what the startup had.
If Arm’s right, Qualcomm would have to pay a lot more to Arm for every chip it ships. If Qualcomm’s right, a lot less.
The startup, called Nuvia, was founded by a crack team of processor engineers from Apple and Google. Nuvia was building a high-performance Arm processor that it said would best Apple’s M1 as well as AMD and Intel processors – all while burning much less power.
Nuvia set its sights on the data center – and it had an Arm license specifically for that. Qualcomm isn’t much interested in making server processors for the cloud.
But the chipmaker was so impressed with the Nuvia team and its innovative approach that it decided to use its technology to jack up its PC processor lineup with new designs it claims will smoke Apple’s latest M2. The first chips are planned for 2023.
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But what would really turn the Arm relationship on its ear is Qualcomm’s broader plan to redesign all of its Arm-based chips to incorporate Nuvia’s innovations. That would slash what Qualcomm pays in royalties to Arm on every chip it sells, not just PC processors.
How big a gash would that be? No one knows exactly. But Qualcomm bought the capability by paying $1.4 billion for Nuvia. So if you’re trying to figure it out, that’s not a bad place to start.
Like Qualcomm, the vast majority of licensees incorporate into their chip designs stock, pre-designed processors from Arm. It costs them more to let Arm do all the processor design work. But it’s easier, faster and – for many applications – good enough.
Apple is one of the few licensees doing its own Arm processor designs. And it not only saves money through lower royalties. The customization is also what makes the M1 and M2 series of Arm-compatible processors so special.
Qualcomm has had a longstanding license to design custom Arm processors as well, though it’s been content of late to build its products with canned Arm processors.
And then it bought Nuvia.
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If what Qualcomm says is true, then Arm doesn’t have a legal leg to stand on. In its response to the lawsuit, Qualcomm asserts that Arm doesn’t have any claim to the stuff that makes Nuvia special. The Nuvia design innovations can be applied to any processor, not just Arm.
For its part, Arm said that Qualcomm’s filing is “riddled with inaccuracies,” and added that it will be filing a formal response soon.
If Arm doesn’t win, the licensing firm will need to figure out how it can live with Qualcomm growing Arm’s share in new markets with disruptive new technology it doesn’t control.
Which, as strange as it sounds, is really what this fight is all about.
Mike Feibus is president and principal analyst of FeibusTech, a Scottsdale, Arizona, market research and consulting firm. Reach him at mikef@feibustech.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikeFeibus.


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