x86 Beware: Nvidia May Be Eyeing an ARM Takeover From Soft Bank

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SoftBank is reportedly exploring the sale of ARM and Nvidia is one of the companies that might be interested. This is a remarkably interesting idea that could have enormous consequences for the mobile and desktop markets.

First, let’s talk about the obvious. Once upon a time (by which I mean roughly years ago), there were three companies building x86 chipsets: Nvidia, AMD, and Intel. Nvidia was, by this time, largely on the sidelines of the market with some enthusiast segment wins and SLI-centric motherboard adoption, but AMD and Intel were taking most of the business for their respective platforms. I remember when it was common for people to argue that Nvidia’s lack of an integrated GPU would be the reason why it died altogether as Intel and AMD ramped up their offerings, and one of the reasons for why Nvidia chose to explore Tegra in the first place was to find new markets for its products and IP as a result of the motherboard chipset market shrinking (or so we were told at the time).

Given that Windows now exists in ARM flavors, an Nvidia purchase of the company would allow the firm to launch itself back into the PC market with an array of systems leveraging ARM cores with integrated Nvidia cores. That’s to say nothing of the hardware the company could build for the HTPC or smartphone and tablet spaces. It’s not hard to imagine Nvidia using its own GPU technology to replace Mali as a low-cost embedded solution for some customers while building higher-end SoCs capable of challenging either Apple or Intel/AMD. Even devices like the Nvidia Shield could benefit from this kind of tight integration.

Nvidia would undoubtedly face regulatory scrutiny over the deal, and it should — as the primary SoC platform for the entire smartphone industry, any chance that Nvidia would cease licensing ARM chips to their current customers would be a serious risk. This, however, is also why any deal Nvidia made to acquire the company would almost certainly include legal language guaranteeing that access to ARM designs would continue. SoftBank did not attempt to take ARM private and reserve its CPUs for a handful of companies when it bought the company years ago, and Nvidia would be unlikely to do so here. The company could effectively continue to develop and release ARM’s mixtures of hard IP cores and architecture licenses. Nvidia, of course, might choose to ignore the PC market altogether in favor of AI, ML, and HPC markets.


ARM already has plans to compete in markets of core interest to Nvidia.

I’ve said already that Apple’s decision to pivot towards ARM could have an impact on the long-term future of x86 PCs if Intel and AMD can’t collectively meet the challenge. If Apple is primarily a CPU challenge for Intel and AMD, Nvidia’s re-entry into the market could be just as impactful on the GPU side.

Assuming, of course, that Nvidia is 1). Interested and 2). Won whatever bidding competition eventually develops. It’s entirely possible that a different firm might buy ARM, since highly successful CPU architectures are rare birds and tend to pick up a lot of interest.

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July 24, 2020
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