Apple shows interest in RISC-V chips, a competitor to the arm technology of iPhones

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

Andrew Hoyle / CNET

Apple would like to hire a programmer who is familiar with RISC-V, a processor technology that works with the Arm designs that power iPhones, iPads and newer Macs. The company’s interest arose in a Job advertisement for a “RISC-V high-performance programmer” that Apple released on Thursday.

It’s not exactly clear what Apple plans to do with the technology. Apple did not respond to a request for comment.

Even getting a supporting role in an Apple product would be a huge win for them RISC-V allies try to establish their technology as an alternative to older chip families such as Arm or Intel’s x86. One of the creators of RISC-V is pioneering processor designer David Patterson, and startups like SiFive and Esperanto Technologies are commercializing RISC-V designs.

The job description provides some details on Apple’s plans. The programmer will work in a team that “implements innovative RISC-V solutions and state-of-the-art routines. This should support the necessary computation for things like machine learning, image processing algorithms, signal and video processing,” says the job description.

The job is within Apple’s Vector and Numerics Group, which develops embedded subsystems in products such as Macs, iPhones, Apple Watches and Apple TVs. This could indicate that RISC-V usage is taking place in the supporting hardware, not the main processor that powers a computing device.

Apple has struck a competitive balance between performance and battery life with its in-house processors, first the A-series models in iPhones and, since last year, the M1, which has started to oust Intel chips from Macs. These Apple processors all use technology licensed by Arm – specifically the Instruction Set Architecture (ISA), which software uses to issue instructions to the chip.

One of the celebrities of RISC-V is that unlike Arm, it is free to use. Another is that it can be expanded with custom instructions, an option that makes it more flexible, but runs the risk of software written for one RISC-V chip not working on another. But anyone who introduces RISC-V chips still has to design one or get a design from someone who did.

Switching from one processor family to another is a major challenge. Apple has gained a lot of experience in this. Apple M series processors are the fourth family to power Macs, for example. But countless third-party programmers also have to upgrade their software for new processor families.

This difficulty is minimized if only Apple’s software is running on an isolated subsystem that is not exposed to any external software. There is plenty of this in the technology world, such as the software that powers a car’s engine.


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