Last week, Intel published a blog post detailing the 39th anniversary of the x86 microarchitecture’s launch and the various ways the microarchitecture has evolved over the decades, from the advent of various SIMD (single instruction multiple data) capabilities to advanced encryption and broken security hardware security enhancements. For the most part, it was an unremarkable story for the not-quite-40th-anniversary of what remains one of the most important ISAs on the market today.
It wasn’t until near the end of the post that things turned ugly. In the editorial, Intel Fellow Richard A. Uhlig and Intel general counsel Steven Rodgers write:
Intel carefully protects its x86 innovations, and we do not widely license others to use them… In the early days of our microprocessor business, Intel needed to enforce its patent rights against various companies including United Microelectronics Corporation, Advanced Micro Devices, Cyrix Corporation, Chips and Technologies, Via Technologies, and, most recently, Transmeta Corporation. Enforcement actions have been unnecessary in recent years because other companies have respected Intel’s intellectual property rights.
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…
Only time will tell if new attempts to emulate Intel’s x86 ISA will meet a different fate. Intel welcomes lawful competition, and we are confident that Intel’s microprocessors, which have been specifically optimized to implement Intel’s x86 ISA for almost four decades, will deliver amazing experiences, consistency across applications, and a full breadth of consumer offerings, full manageability and IT integration for the enterprise. However, we do not welcome unlawful infringement of our patents, and we fully expect other companies to continue to respect Intel’s intellectual property rights.
This is clearly a shot across the bow of Qualcomm and Microsoft’s plans to introduce Snapdragon 835 hardware in mainstream mobile markets. Historically, Intel has good reason to feel confident about its chest-thumping. On the one hand, it’s hilarious to see the company talking up its legal actions against AMD. Intel has generally come out the loser in multiple countries and in the United States when it attempted to argue AMD had no right to build its own microprocessors based on the x86 architecture.
But look at things from Intel’s perspective: Its tactics in the early 1990s and mid-2000s substantially limited AMD’s addressable market share. It may have paid a whopping $1.4 billion fine to the EU to settle antitrust claims, but that’s peanuts compared with the threat Athlon 64 might have represented to Prescott and Smithfield. And Intel isn’t wrong when it talks about the myriad other companies that used to hold x86 licenses (or tried to emulate the ISA), but withered on the vine after their attempts to compete with Santa Clara failed.
The problem is this: System OEMs like Dell, HP, and Asus aren’t in the business of taking chances. When your net margin on hardware is in the 2-4 percent range, you can’t afford bravery. Imagine a hypothetical future in which HP shipped a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 that could run x86 code via emulation, only to be named as a party to a hypothetical lawsuit in which Intel sues Qualcomm and Microsoft for their emulation system. Unless one of its two partners agrees to indemnify it, there’s no way HP would risk a serious lawsuit over the topic.
Asus, Dell, Acer — all of these companies are likely to see the situation similarly. The specter of these kinds of lawsuits has always loomed large over the computer industry. I wouldn’t blame them for Transmeta’s problems; Transmeta’s code-morphing approach and Efficeon architecture were initially innovative, but performance wasn’t strong and Intel quickly moved to address its own power weaknesses through the Pentium M and the development of technologies like SpeedStep.
On the other hand, Intel’s threats of lawsuits over VIA Technologies’ lack of a P4 bus license were the direct cause of the collapse of VIA’s P4 motherboard market share. VIA’s DDR P4 chipset was a fast and affordable option when the P4 was stuck between either SDR RAM (which badly crippled the CPU) and extremely expensive RDRAM. Intel wouldn’t launch its own DDR chipset for the P4 for more than a year after VIA launched its own. But lawsuit threats and licensing disagreements ensured VIA’s addressable market was minimal.
Does Intel have a case?
The short answer is, we don’t know. The long answer is, it’ll depend on exactly what kind of patents Intel has on its own SIMD extensions. If it holds patents that specifies how to emulate SSE/SSE2, rather than just the instruction sets themselves, Microsoft and Qualcomm could well be found to violate them. Then again, this also wouldn’t be the first time Intel slammed down its foot in a tough-talk display that ultimately came to naught. When AMD announced it would spin off GlobalFoundries, Intel initially argued that the deal might run afoul of its own agreements with AMD regarding the use of that company’s x86 license. In the end, nothing came of those claims, and GF was spun off while continuing to manufacture x86 chips for AMD.
Much of this will turn on what kind of x86 emulation the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 actually performs and how it performs it. Until we know more, we can’t speculate. But Intel has every reason to fight this move. Back when it looked as if ARM and x86 might slug it out head-to-head across the entire market, Intel planned to “win” the fight on performance and efficiency. But with Intel having withdrawn from the smartphone and tablet space, it’s now in the unhappy position of fighting a rearguard action to protect its consumer notebooks and desktops from an encroaching ARM. There have been cracks in the WinTel alliance since smartphones and tablets began gobbling up market share from the PC industry in 2011, but this kind of court case could escalate the feud between Microsoft and Intel.
source : https://www.extremetech.com/computing/250776-intel-quietly-threatens-microsoft-qualcomm-x86-emulation