Splitting the Technology ‘Stack’

The affects of the US/China trade war on the technology we use

Alasdair Allan
8 months ago

As the trade war between the US and China escalates with increasing levels of tariffs being imposed on trade between the two countries, we’re starting to see some intriguing ripples spread out. With the possibility that sanctions by the US could cut off Chinese access to Arm, one of these unanticipated ripples is the rapid adoption of RISC-V in China.

This new found interest in RISC-V is exemplified by the announcement from Ping-Tou-Ge Semiconductor, the chip division of the Chinese behemoth Alibaba, of the Xuantie 910. The 64-bit RISC-V chip has 16 cores and operates at 2.5GHz and, unofficially at least, is the fastest RISC-V based processor yet created.

The announcement coming as China’s government sets an, almost certainly unreachable, target that 70 percent of all chips used by Chinese industry should be domestically produced by 2025.

But while RISC-V is open source, it is not free. Any large company that is going to build a chip around the RISC-V architecture is going to need to license a commercial core or alternatively, if they have enough resources and expertise, they will need to design their own core.

That means that while Chinese company might now be looking very seriously at RISC-V to replace the still ubiquitous Arm, they will be moving in that direction only very reluctantly. The amount of effort involved shouldn’t be underestimated. But if they do begin to move in that direction, the movement might well be unstoppable, and hugely damaging to established companies like Arm and Intel here in the west.

“Chinese companies that rely on RISC-V don’t have to rely on a supplier like Arm or Intel. There’s no threat ever of them losing access to a key part of this design.”—Stewart Randall, Head of the Electronics Group, Intralink

In fact, the renewed interest we’ve seen here, from the likes of the Raspberry Pi Foundation and smaller companies like Adafruit Industries, may well be in reaction to the changes we’re seeing in China. It’s hard to say whether the first commercially available RISC-V processors, from the Bay Area startup SiFive, are driving uptake or are a reaction to the slower movements in China.

But the push towards RISC-V in China isn’t the only sign of the trade war to be seen. With US agencies now barred from buying Huawei equipment, and its relationship with Google in peril, today’s announcement from Huawei at its developer conference in China of its own operating system, Harmony OS, is very much about the trade war. At least, it is as much about that as it is about anything else.

While rumours suggest that Huawei has had Harmony OS under development for years the new operating system isn’t really intended for smart phones. Huawei was rather careful to avoid the suggestion that it is primarily intended to replace Android. A “microkernel-based, distributed OS for all scenarios,” the new operating system is probably more of a competitor for Google’s Fuchsia than Android, and it’s likely that this was the original intention.

However, despite Google’s arguments that cutting Huawei off from Android threatens US security, it’s clear that the release today was very much intended to make clear that Huawei has a path forward if its future access to Android is limited by the trade war.

Regretfully perhap the manufacturing jobs that the trade war is, at least on the face of things, so much about, are never coming back. In the face of strong import tariffs for finished goods companies like Apple may well bring some manufacturing back on shore. Although doing so is sort of complicated, and doing so will take years, not months. However, that doesn’t mean that the skilled manufacturing jobs would return. We only have to look at Brazil to see what would actually happen.

In Brazil, high import tariffs forced Apple, and Taiwan’s Foxconn Technology Group, to open manufacturing plants. The only iPhones made outside of China are now rolling off an assembly line near São Paulo. But the phones retail in Brazil for twice as much as the Chinese made iPhone sells for in the United States, and the country has little to show for the tax and other incentives that brought Apple and Foxconn to Brazil except a widening deficit.

As a result of the latest exchanges between the US and China we may be seeing a split in our technological ‘stacks.’ Already fractured by the Great Firewall into two loosely coupled Internets, one in English the other in Chinese, we may now be seeing a great divide opening for the hardware and software as well.

That divide already exists to an extent, falling in love with your parts bin can be a major mistake when prototyping, as a lot of the components typically used during prototyping here in the west aren’t readily available in China. But the depth and breadth of the divide might well be widening. That isn’t going to be a good thing for anyone, whether they’re here in the west, or in China.

In the modern world, a trade war benefits almost nobody.

Alasdair Allan
Scientist, author, hacker, maker, and journalist. Building, breaking, and writing. For hire. You can reach me at 📫 alasdair@babilim.co.uk.
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