All smartphones sold these days use processors that are based on ARM's ISA (Instruction Set Architecture). Arm Holdings is a British firm that developed this power-efficient architecture back in 1983, and it has been dominating the mobile device space for a few decades. Every brand, from Apple to Samsung to Xiaomi, uses processors based on ARM architecture for their mobile devices. However, that could change in the coming years as a new option has emerged.
We could see Android smartphones and other devices switch to RISC-V-based processors in the coming years.
Android is getting better support for RISC-V hardware and software
RISC-V is a new RISC-based instruction set architecture developed by the University of California, Berkeley, in 2014. Unlike ARM, RISC-V is free and open-source, which means brands don't have to pay anyone to use this architecture. It has been gaining momentum over the past few years, and it is supported by several development tools and operating systems, including Android.
Android already supports ARM (Arm v7 and ARM64), x86, x86-64, and RISC-V instruction set architectures. A few days ago, Google announced that it has joined hands with Qualcomm to bring RISC-V support to Wear OS, and now, the company has announced it will improve support for RISC-V on Android.
Google says developers can try out RISC-V-based Android experience
Google now says that it has started mature support for RISC-V and is ensuring that any processor that is using RISC-V will have support for all the features that are expected to achieve high performance. Currently, developers can build, test, and run the Android support for RISC-V on their own machines through Cuttlefish Virtual Device. Developers can build and run a basic Android (AOSP) experience. Although it isn't fully optimized yet, Google believes it is ready enough for experimentation and collaboration.
Google plans to have the NDK (Native Development Kit) ABI (Application Binary Interface) finalized and beta builds available on Android's public website soon. RISC-V can soon be tested on x86-64 (AMD and Intel PCs) and ARM64 (ARM-based processors) for testing later this year. In 2024, though, the company plans to make the RISC-V emulator available to the public with a full feature set so that people can test applications and games on various types of device form factors, including phones and tablets.
This story will continue after our Galaxy Z Fold 5 hands-on video.
Why would Android smartphone brands be interested in RISC-V?
Author's Note: Qualcomm is already developing a RISC-V-based processor for Wear OS smartwatches. It is likely that Qualcomm and other chipset brands will develop RISC-V-based processing chipsets for Android smartphones, tablets, TVs, and more. Brands are likely to choose this path as RISC-V is royalty-free and open source, so they don't need to pay anyone.
ARM, on the other hand, takes a one-time fee that costs millions of dollars, but in addition, there is a royalty fee that is based on the cost of the chipset. A few days ago, it was reported that ARM is changing its licensing structure, where device manufacturers might have to pay a royalty fee based on the price of the device rather than the price of the processor. That would mean developing and selling phones would be a lot more costlier for brands, and those price increases would likely increase the prices of smartphones for consumers. Qualcomm has been having legal issues with ARM around the same topic since it acquired Nuvia. So, Qualcomm could be the first brand to develop RISC-V-based processors. Other chipset brands, including MediaTek and Samsung, could follow suit.
In the coming years, we wouldn't be surprised to see Android smartphones and tablets using RISC-V-based processors. Samsung has already joined RISE, a RISC-V software development ecosystem, as a founding partner, which likely means it is also looking at RISC-V as an alternative to ARM.