[Update 8: New Huawei Laptop In Jeopardy?] Hardware suppliers, chip designers, and standards organizations suspend business with Huawei
The ongoing trade war between the United States and China has resulted in another stunning development. The BBC is reporting that semiconductor IP company ARM has suspended business with Huawei. Huawei’s chip designs use a lot of ARM’s IP, so Huawei faces yet another significant setback in its path to becoming the number 1 smartphone vendor in the world.
According to the BBC, ARM has instructed its employees to suspend “all active contracts, support entitlements, and any pending engagements” with Huawei and its subsidiaries named in the U.S.’s Entity List of the Export Administration Regulations. The BBC further notes that ARM told its staff not to “provide support, delivery technology (whether software, code, or other updates), engage in technical discussions, or otherwise discuss technical matters with Huawei, HiSilicon or any of the other named entities.” Although ARM is based in the United Kingdom and its parent company is Japan-based SoftBank, ARM is complying with the U.S. trade restrictions because the company says its designs contain “US origin technology.” ARM is a multi-national company and has multiple offices in the United States in places such as Austin and San Jose, so it’s possible that some of ARM’s architectural technologies designed in their U.S. offices might be subject to the new regulations.
To call this move a devastating blow to Huawei would be an understatement. If the U.S. and China cannot reach a deal, then the one-two punch of Google revoking Huawei’s Android license and ARM suspending all business with Huawei will be the death of China’s largest technology company. The inability to distribute Google Play apps and services, get early access to the next Android platform release and security patches, and even potentially fork AOSP have led Huawei to consider its “Plan B” OS for its smartphones. Although reportedly far from ready, Huawei’s Android alternative has been in development for years, and the company is already seeking alternatives to Google Play. On the other hand, Huawei’s hardware independence (for the most part) from U.S.-based companies has been its one saving grace in this trade war – at least until now.
Huawei’s smartphone business is heavily dependent on IP from ARM. The majority of smartphones from Huawei and its sub-brand Honor feature chip designs from another Huawei-owned entity: HiSilicon. And HiSilicon’s chip designs are based on ARM architecture. For instance, HiSilicon’s latest consumer SoC, the Kirin 980, features ARM’s latest Cortex-A series CPU and Mali GPU designs. But HiSilicon is also a licensee of ARM’s v8 CPU architecture, which it uses to build custom chip designs for servers. Thus, ARM IP is significant to Huawei’s hardware business across the board, and losing access to that IP will be crippling to the company.
While the loss of ARM IP will prove devastating, Huawei won’t immediately feel the effects as the company has stockpiled 3 months worth of supplies in anticipation of the U.S. trade ban. And as the BBC notes, Huawei and HiSilicon can continue to manufacture existing chips using ARM technology, so current smartphones like the new Honor 20 series should be unaffected. A source told the BBC that the upcoming HiSilicon Kirin 985 will also not be affected by the ban, but that HiSilicon’s next chip design will likely need to be “rebuilt from scratch.” Given the long design and development process for new chips and how dependent Huawei has been on ARM IP, it could take Huawei years to build a new chip without ARM IP. If they survive that long, that is. Huawei’s best hope now is to petition China to resolve its trade dispute with the United States because going it alone just doesn’t seem possible for Huawei with this latest development.
The BBC reached out to both ARM and Huawei, but both companies declined to comment. If we hear any further developments on this news, we’ll update this article accordingly.
Update 1: ARM Confirms
In a statement sent to The Verge, an ARM spokesperson states that the company “is complying with the latest restrictions set forth by the US government and is having ongoing conversations with the appropriate US government agencies to ensure we remain compliant.” The statement continues with the spokesperson saying that “Arm values its relationship with our longtime partner HiSilicon and we are hopeful for a swift resolution on this matter.”
Huawei’s statement, on the other hand, was far more vague about the situation. “We value our close relationships with our partners, but recognize the pressure some of them are under, as a result of politically motivated decisions,” states a Huawei spokesperson in a statement sent to The Verge. “We are confident this regrettable situation can be resolved and our priority remains to continue to deliver world-class technology and products to our customers around the world.”
Update 2: TSMC offers good news for Huawei, others drop out of deals
Although HiSilicon designs chips like the Kirin 980, the company does not own any fabrication plants to manufacture the chips. Instead, the company turns to TSMC, the largest semiconductor foundry, to manufacture its chip designs. TSMC has concluded (via Nikkei Asian Review) that its chipmaking equipment is not subject to the U.S. export rules. Thus, HiSilicon can likely continue contracting TSMC to manufacture its chips, including the upcoming Kirin 985.
Furthermore, Chinese media publication Sina reported earlier this year that Huawei has a permanent license to the ARMv8 instruction set (via GizGuide). Huawei can potentially continue designing new chips based on ARMv8 depending on the terms of this contract. For example, if Huawei pays yearly fees, needs to meet certain commitments, or simply has an ongoing license then it’s unlikely the contract will save Huawei from the U.S. export restrictions. On the other hand, if Huawei outright bought access to use the ARMv8 instruction set, then perhaps the company can continue to design new SoCs without support from ARM. Still, without support from ARM, Huawei will not be able to use new ARM Cortex-A series CPUs, Mali GPUs, or updates to the ARM instruction set specification. That would put HiSilicon at a heavy disadvantage to other chip designers like Apple, Samsung, and Qualcomm.
Other hardware suppliers such as Panasonic (via CNBC) and Toshiba (via Nikkei Asian Review) have suspended shipments of components to Huawei. Panasonic and Toshiba have not confirmed which hardware components they’ve stopped supplying to Huawei, but at least for Toshiba, we know the company supplies Huawei with flash memory chips.
SumahoInfo reports that Huawei has been removed from the list of partners on the SD Card Association’s website, which could mean that Huawei has lost the ability to sell SD Card-compatible devices. Use of the SD Card logo, essential patents, and SD technology require license agreements. The SD Card Association has so far not confirmed the news. Notably, the Huawei Mate 20 Pro, Huawei Mate 20 X, and Huawei P30 Pro are compatible with “NM Cards,” short for NanoMemory cards, a new flash storage expansion specification designed by Huawei. It’s unclear if NM Cards will be affected in a situation where Huawei is no longer a licensed partner of the SD Card Association.
According to Reuters, Interdigital and Qualcomm will likely continue to be able to license their 5G patents to Huawei as patents aren’t covered by the new export restrictions. Huawei’s 5G business is one of the major reasons the company is in this mess in the first place, so it’s interesting to hear that American companies can continue licensing 5G patents to them.
With input from Steven Zimmerman.
Update 3: Wi-Fi Alliance and SD Association are out
According to Nikkei Asian Review, the Wi-Fi Alliance has suspended Huawei’s membership in the association. This limits Huawei’s ability to negotiate future standards for Wi-Fi technology, though it does not prevent Huawei from building its own Wi-Fi chips. However, Broadcom, one of the leading suppliers of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth chips, has already cut ties with Huawei. Broadcom chips are found in a large number of smartphones, including many from Huawei.
The bad news doesn’t end there, however. Both Nikkei and AndroidAuthority have confirmed with the SD Association that Huawei is no longer a member. This means that Huawei can no longer legally sell devices with SD card support. Existing Huawei devices can still use SD cards, but future Huawei products may not officially support them. Furthermore, this move cuts Huawei out of the decision-making process for future SD standards. The company notably introduced its own expandable storage technology called Nano Memory (NM) which for now has no chance of being adopted by the SD Association.
Next, Huawei has voluntarily withdrawn itself from JEDEC, the company behind flash storage and RAM standards. This limits the company’s ability to provide input into future UFS and LPDDR standards.
One of Huawei’s contract smartphone assemblers, Flextronics, has allegedly halted production on Huawei smartphones, according to sources speaking to Nikkei Asian Review. Huawei currently doesn’t manufacture most of its own smartphones, instead opting to work with ODMs like FIH Mobile, Wingtech Technology, BYD, and others. On the upside, Panasonic has backtracked on an earlier statement it made (via SCMP); the Japanese company now states that it will continue supplying Huawei with hardware components as expected.
Update 4: Reinstated by SD Association
Last week, it was confirmed that Huawei was no longer a member of the SD Association. This meant they could no longer sell devices with SD card support, which, admittedly, is not as big of a deal as it once was. However, a Huawei representative has confirmed to Android Authority that the company has been added back to the SD Association’s membership list. The SD Association has yet to make a statement on the situation.
Update 5: Reinstated by Wi-Fi Alliance and JEDEC
Huawei once again shows up on the member lists of both the Wi-Fi Alliance and JEDEC. Sadly for the Chinese giant, another key partner has stopped doing business with them. According to Nikkei Asian Review, Synopsys, a supplier of electronic design automation (EDA) tools necessary for chip design, has “stopped providing software updates” to Huawei. The company also halted the sales of its IP to Huawei, according to sources speaking to Nikkei. Huawei’s chip design subsidiary, HiSilicon, reportedly used technology from Synopsys in its chip designs. Specifically, Nikkei claims that Synopsys is one of two companies capable of providing the tools necessary to develop advanced 5G chips, the other company being Cadence Design—another U.S.-based company. While Nikkei says that chips launching next year may be in jeopardy, they claim that designs for the HiSilicon Kirin 985, Kirin 990, and Balong 5000 chips have already been completed.
Update 6: Foxconn suspends several production lines
Sources speaking to the South China Morning Post tell the publication that Taiwanese electronics manufacturer Foxconn has stopped several production lines for Huawei phones. This reportedly comes as Huawei is reducing its own orders for new phones, though it’s unclear if this production cut is temporary. Foxconn, the manufacturer of smartphones from many different brands like HMD Global, Apple, Xiaomi, and Google, reportedly “initiated a massive recruitment drive” earlier this year in anticipation of further growth in Huawei’s consumer smartphone business. Because of Huawei’s recent setbacks, the President of Huawei’s subbrand Honor, George Zhao, said the company is re-evaluating whether it can achieve its goal of becoming the world’s number 1 smartphone vendor by the end of 2020.
Update 7: Huawei refutes Foxconn production cut claims
The plot thickens. Huawei is now refuting the claims that it has reduced the production of several smartphone lines. A representative from the company released the following statement to Android Authority:
“Huawei refutes these claims. Our global production levels are normal, with no notable adjustments in either direction.”
Update 8: New Laptop Launch Possibly In Jeopardy
Yesterday, both The Information and CNBC published articles claiming that Huawei is indefinitely postponing its upcoming launch of a new Matebook laptop. The laptop was set to be announced this week at CES Asia 2019 in Shanghai, but the reports claim there’s no longer a date set for the product’s launch.
There are good reasons to believe these reports. The Information has a solid track record which is also true for CNBC, but the latter says they were informed of this news by none other than Richard Yu himself, the CEO of Huawei’s consumer business. Mr. Yu blames the U.S. Entity List, in which Huawei was recently added to restrict the business that American companies can conduct with the Chinese tech giant. Huawei typically uses Intel chips and preloads Microsoft’s Windows OS in its laptops, so it would be difficult for the company to release a laptop given how reliant it is on American firms.
Oddly, Chinese publication GlobalTimes refutes the specific details of this news, saying that Huawei will indeed release a new laptop next month, that the laptop will run on Windows, and that the company hasn’t slowed down production of laptops. According to GlobalTimes, this new laptop will reportedly be ARM-based, but it’s unclear whether it’ll be a Snapdragon 8cx-powered device.
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