Intel Threatens Microsoft And Qualcomm Over x86 Emulation – Forbes

Intel recently made an unprecedented public challenge to Microsoft and Qualcomm that basically told the latter two companies: if you ship an x86 instruction set architecture (ISA) emulator, we’re coming after you. The blog post was masked as a tribute to the nearly 40th anniversary of the x86 architecture (next year is the actual 40th). Most of the post trotted out Intel executives and architectures to talk about the development of the ISA over the year. But the last two paragraphs were an amazingly blunt attack on x86 emulations:

“However, there have been reports that some companies may try to emulate Intel’s proprietary x86 ISA without Intel’s authorization. Emulation is not a new technology, and Transmeta was notably the last company to claim to have produced a compatible x86 processor using emulation (“code morphing”) techniques. Intel enforced patents relating to SIMD instruction set enhancements against Transmeta’s x86 implementation even though it used emulation. In any event, Transmeta was not commercially successful, and it exited the microprocessor business 10 years ago.

Only time will tell if new attempts to emulate Intel’s x86 ISA will meet a different fate. Intel welcomes lawful competition, and we are confident that Intel’s microprocessors, which have been specifically optimized to implement Intel’s x86 ISA for almost four decades, will deliver amazing experiences, consistency across applications, and a full breadth of consumer offerings, full manageability and IT integration for the enterprise. However, we do not welcome unlawful infringement of our patents, and we fully expect other companies to continue to respect Intel’s intellectual property rights. Strong intellectual property protections make it possible for Intel to continue to invest the enormous resources required to advance Intel’s dynamic x86 ISA, and Intel will maintain its vigilance to protect its innovations and investments.”

This turn of events is quite amazing. It now pits two former allies against each other – Intel and Microsoft. The companies were once so closely aligned that they were nicknamed “Wintel.” Now, Intel feels threatened by a new partnership between Microsoft and Qualcomm. The blog post led to a flurry of tech sites picking up the message. But the question is: how far is Intel willing to go?

Cracks in “Wintel”

This is not the first time the interests of Intel and Microsoft have diverged. When it came to the transition between 32-bit microprocessors and 64-bit microprocessors, Intel pushed its purpose-built Itanium architecture as the standard 64-bit ISA. In partnership with HP, Intel designed Itanium to create a completely new body of intellectual property (IP) that AMD would not have access to, effectively excluding the only credible second source for Intel’s ISAs from participating in the Itanium market.

But Microsoft was not a fan of Itanium, and when AMD introduced its AMD64 64-bit extension to the venerable x86 ISA, Microsoft adopted it and then insisted Intel adopt the exact same ISA. Intel renamed the instruction set Intel 64 and today it is generically called x64 (originally x86-64, but that name was a bit clunky). Intel begrudgingly introduced the x64 ISA in the Pentium 4 (Prescott) processor design in 2004.

Not surprisingly, Intel’s blog post, patting itself on the back for all the innovation made to the x86 ISA, does not mention that AMD’s 64-bit extensions are actually responsible for keeping the x86 ISA alive in the face of Intel’s own attempt to replace it. Without AMD64, the 32-bit x86 instruction set would have been relegated to embedded processors today, competing somewhat ineffectively with ARM’s ISAs.

In that initial power play between the two Wintel partners, Microsoft won. In return, to undermine Microsoft, Intel invested heavily in Linux development for the x86 ISA in the name of open ecosystems.  Eventually Intel’s investment paid off as Intel was able to supplant the IBM/Freescale (now NXP) PowerPC processor at Apple – Apple’s operating system was (and is today) based on a variant of Linux called BSD). Intel loves open ecosystems, because it has been able to invest its disproportionate margin dollars in optimizing x86 performance for open ecosystems – far beyond the investment that other ecosystems have been able to afford.

Intel loves open ecosystems, as long it doesn’t have to open up its own ISA.


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