Apple shows interest in RISC-V chips, a competitor to iPhones’ Arm tech

Apple shows interest in RISC-V chips, a competitor to iPhones' Arm tech thumbnail
iPhone 12 Pro Max

Perhaps RISC-V chips will play a supporting role in future iPhones.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Apple wants to hire a programmer who knows about RISC-V, a processor technology that competes with the Arm designs that power iPhones, iPads and newer Macs. The company’s interest emerged in a job posting for a “RISC-V high performance programmer” that Apple published Thursday.

It’s not clear exactly what Apple’s plans are for the technology. Apple didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Landing even a supporting role in an Apple product would be a major victory for RISC-V allies seeking to establish their technology as an alternative to older chip families like Arm or Intel’s x86. One of the RISC-V’s creators is seminal processor designer David Patterson, and startups like SiFive and Esperanto Technologies are commercializing RISC-V designs.

The job description offers some details about Apple’s plans. The programmer will work in a team that’s “implementing innovative RISC-V solutions and state of the art routines. This is to support the necessary computation for such things as machine learning, vision algorithms, signal and video processing,” the job description says.

The job is within Apple’s Vector and Numerics Group, which designs embedded subsystems in products like Macs, iPhones, Apple Watches and Apple TVs. That could indicate RISC-V use would take place in supporting hardware, not the main processor that powers a computing device.

Apple has found a competitive balance of performance and battery life with its in-house processors, first the A series models in iPhones and starting last year the M1 that’s begun displacing Intel chips from Macs. Those Apple processors all use technology licensed from Arm — specifically the instruction set architecture (ISA) that software uses to issue commands to the chip.

One of RISC-V’s claims to fame is that it’s free to use, unlike Arm. Another is that it can be extended with custom instructions, an option that makes it more flexible but raises risks that software written for one RISC-V chip won’t work on another. But anyone adopting RISC-V chips still has to design one or obtain a design from somebody who has.

Shifting from one processor family to another is a major ordeal. Apple has accumulated a lot of experience doing so. Apple’s M series processors are the fourth family to power Macs, for example. Countless third-party programmers also have to revamp their software for new processor families, though.

That difficulty is minimized if it’s only Apple’s software running on an isolated subsystem not exposed to outside software. There’s plenty of that in the technology world, for example the software that runs a car’s engine.

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