When US hardware and software companies started severing ties with Huawei this week, I figured that would be tough on the Chinese company’s smartphone division, but it wouldn’t necessarily be the end of the world.
After all, Huawei is one of only a handful of phone makers that designs its own chips. So even if Qualcomm, Intel, and other chip makers were to pull the plug, Huawei could continue producing phones with its own Kirin chips.
Except those chips are based on ARM architecture… and now the BBC reports that ARM Holdings is also suspending work with Huawei. That could be a big problem for Huawei.
According to the BBC, while ARM is based in the UK, officials at the company have told employees that its chip designs include technology that originated in the United States… which means it’s subject to the trade restrictions put in place by the Trump administration.
Huawei has been half-expecting this sort of move for years, and has been developing its own smartphone operating system that it could use in lieu of Android. The company could be ready to start rolling it out as soon as this fall, if necessary.
So from a software standpoint, it’s theoretically possible that Huawei could survive without support from Google. While conventional wisdom is that there’s not room in the market for a mobile operating system other than Android and iOS, Huawei may be big enough and have enough going for it to pull off the launch of a new OS where others have failed. Huawei is currently one of the top three smartphone makers in terms of shipment volume, and the company’s latest phones have received stellar reviews for innovative camera features like high-quality low-light shots and advanced optical zoom photography.
But… if the company loses the right to license ARM designs for its Kirin processors, that could make it difficult to produce next-gen chips. Sure, Huawei could theoretically try to switch to an alternate architecture such as MIPS or RISC-V, but it would probably take years for the company to produce something as good as its current-gen Kirin processors.
Maybe Huawei could try buying chips from Chinese companies like MediaTek… but for the most part those are also based on ARM designs and could be subject to similar restrictions if those companies try to sell products to Huawei.
All of which is to say, it’s really unclear where Huawei goes from here.