Two hardware makers are planning to offer chips later this year featuring the RISC-V free and open architecture standard, joining the $180 Linux-capable StarFive VisionFive RISC-V board that went on sale in January. In late June, Pine64 said it was designing a single-board computer for the market now dominated by Raspberry Pi, and Xcalibyte and DeepComputing said they would begin shipping RISC-V-based laptops at the end of the summer.
The twelve-year-old RISC-V computer instruction set architecture standard belongs to no one and everyone, giving it unique appeal compared to Intel and ARM chips, which require licensing fees. At the same time, RISC-V’s relative novelty and reduced feature set and support are barriers to more widespread adoption. An open source development effort last year to produce a Linux-capable mini-PC with RISC-V ended in failure. VisionFive was involved in that project, too. Like any new tech ecosystem, software support for RISC-V is more limited than in Raspberry Pi’s robust development community, says independent software engineer Leon Anavi in a review of the VisionFive. That said, he encouraged viewers to join in and contribute to the growing RISC-V community.
“Consumer laptops are not the target of the RISC-V ecosystem. RISC-V is optimized for power consumption.”
—William Li, Counterpoint Research
RISC-V is the fifth generation of so-called “reduced instruction set computers”—hence the acronym—and it is focused on simplicity and power efficiency. When the Internet of Things started to take off, RISC-V’s moment seemed to have come; Huawei has used the standard in wearables since 2018. RISC-V could achieve a 25% market share in the IoT by 2025, Counterpoint Research estimated in late 2021. “Consumer laptops are not the target of the RISC-V ecosystem,” says analyst William Li, the author of of Counterpoint report. “RISC-V is optimized for power consumption.”
That has attracted AI-specific applications and cloud infrastructure ( “RISC-V Dives Into AI”, IEEE Spectrum, April 2022).
The openness of the standard has also attracted markets facing limits to their use of Intel and ARM intellectual property: no government can place sanctions on open chip designs. That has been a concern for Chinese hardware makers since the trade warinitiated by former U.S. President Donald Trump, and may help promote RISC-V sales in the event of restrictions on sales of Intel or ARM tech, wrote Deloitte analysts late last year. Alibaba has already taken some experimental steps in the direction of RISC-V, IEEE Spectrum wrote last year.
Russian hardware makers also began exploring RISC-V, even before the severe round of sanctions other countries placed on it after its 2022 escalation of its war with Ukraine. “In the second half of this year, we will keep track of Chinese and Russian companies to see if they invest in RISC-V and creating their own IP,” says Li.
One Chinese research institute, the Institute of Software at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (ISCAS), set out to build 2,000 RISC-powered laptops for development purposes, according to a July 2021 post by PLCT Lab director Wei Wu. In the PLCT Lab’s roadmap for 2022, Wu writes that the group will focus on enabling Linux and the most commonly used open software, including LibreOffice, for RISC-V laptops.
That is one of the ironies of RISC-V being an open standard: it may gain adoption as trade barriers fragment the global market for chips.
For now, however, the biggest market for RISC-V chips is in the global automotive industry, market research group Semico reported last year on behalf of the RISC-V Internationalindustry group. Semico predicted that RISC-V will continue to gain shares of the automotive market.
The future for chips may in fact be mixed, in a good way: hardware makers can mix RISC-V, ARM, and Intel components in processor packages of their own making. Intel, for one, encourages that on the grounds that customers might end up paying them to build such chips.
And neither legacy chip designer is standing still. Perhaps in response to RISC-V’s customizability, ARM, which while open charges a license fee, has been offering IoT customers more customizable options. “They’re going to try to defend their market share,” Li predicts.
First published by IEEE Spectrum: [html] [pdf].