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April 24, 2012
The Chinese government created a program that plans to establish a national processor architecture. If one is adopted, the architecture may be a requirement for projects looking to receive government funding, potentially impacting purchases of everything from room-filling computers to smartphones.
An article by EE times explains the motivation behind the program and details some possible outcomes. According to the article, the country’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology held a meeting in March, which was attended by representatives of nearly 20 organizations around the country. It was the first such discussion held for the National Instruction Set Architecture initiative.
As is the case worldwide, x86 and ARM processors are dominant across much of China’s computing industry. These two ISAs are supported by broad computing ecosystems that have enabled strong adoption of these architectures in the West. Even Apple Inc., notorious for end-to-end control of their hardware and software, decided to drop the less popular PowerPC in favor of x86 chips.
China may be looking to create the same type of environment through this initiative. But even if the program succeeds in creating a national ISA, widespread adoption of the architecture may take some time. EE times spoke with Tudor Brown, president of ARM via email, where he noted the difference between developing an ISA versus developing a culture around that architecture:
“A key issue is not the ISA itself, but the ecosystem that surrounds any ISA. While defining an ISA is a relatively short term activity, building and deploying a vibrant ecosystem takes a lot longer.”
Currently, there are at least five processor architectures being evaluated under the initiative, including, apparently, its domestic Godson processor (based on MIPS). There is also talk of ARM and PowerPC, with the latter having the advantage of a cheaper licensing model.
However, the program could extend an existing instruction set architecture (ISA) or develop a completely new ISA altogether. If a unique architecture emerges, Chinese businesses and organizations could avoid paying licensing fees for foreign designs.
As the EE Times article notes, this is not China’s first attempt in creating a national technology standards. So far, the country has set its own standards for CD and DVD players, surveillance systems, and 3G cell signals, with 4G currently in development.
It appears the Chinese government has decided a national ISA is the best way to develop a strong computing ecosystem for the domestic market. If the program succeeds, it would reduce both computer diversity, as well as competition, an outcome that would tend to supress innovation.
Full story at EE Times
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