05-01-2023 | By Robin Mitchell

As RISC-V continues to increase in popularity, many businesses are now turning to the processor architecture, including Google, which has just recently announced that RISC-V will become a major platform supported by Android. Why has RISC-V become so popular so quickly, what exactly has Google said about RISC-V, and could this be the beginning of the end of ARM?

Why has RISC-V become so popular so quickly?

Over the past year, almost every other story in the semiconductor field has involved RISC-V in some way, whether it is the inclusion of a RISC-V core in a commercial device, a standalone RISC-V processor, or software support for the architecture. But no matter what the story is, there is no denying that RISC-V has taken the engineering community by storm. When looking into the architecture and what it offers, it’s no surprise that it has such a large following!

Unlike other major CPU architectures on the market, RISC-V is open-source, meaning that anyone can use the instruction set for the CPU for free with no strings attached, no need for a license, and no need to pay royalties. The only catch with RISC-V is that, unlike many other processor architectures, engineers have to either design their own custom RISC-V processor or license a design from another engineer, as RISC-V merely describes an instruction architecture and CPU behaviour as opposed to providing a physical implementation. 

But even though RISC-V doesn’t offer a physical implementation, the beauty of the standardised architecture and operation means that two RISC-V CPUs from completely different manufacturers, in theory, can run the same code and produce the exact same response. As such, RISC-V provides standardisation by default, which means that engineers have far more options when selecting a processor for their design (as opposed to being restricted to one specific manufacturer).

At the same time, RISC-V has been designed to scale, meaning it can target almost all processor markets. Smaller-sized RISC-V processors with a focus on energy consumption can be used in mobile and IoT devices, while larger high-performance RISC-V processors can be targeted at servers and data centres. While these two processors may be physically different, they will be able to run the same software (albeit at different speeds and performances).

Another major benefit to using RISC-V is that by giving engineers the power to design their own processors, they can customise their hardware with peripherals, co-processors, and accelerators. This means that designs can be made power efficient while simultaneously providing maximum processing performance for specific tasks, and this is especially important in mobile and IoT designs where energy availability is limited. 

Google announces RISC-V will become a Tier-1 platform

With so much industry support behind RISC-V, it comes as no surprise that Google recently announced that RISC-V will become a major platform supported by Android. But what makes this announcement particularly interesting is that Google won’t be supporting RISC-V as some small offshoot or niche but will support it with the same level of importance as ARM. Considering that ARM is the primary platform that Android supports, this means that Google is putting the importance of RISC-V at the same level as ARM and thus sees RISC-V as a future processing architecture that will become mainstream in the mobile industry. For comparison, Android has a limited degree of support for x86 but has no plans to treat x86 to the same degree as ARM.

While Google has made some progress in porting Android to RISC-V devices (with some nightly builds available), support is extremely limited at this point. However, one major advantage of the Android operating system is that many apps utilise Java meaning that, by nature, they are cross-platform. This means that once Google has the Java runtime machine working on RISC-V, most apps will be able to work as normal, but apps that rely on fast code (such as games), will require manual porting. 

Is this the beginning of the end for ARM?

While it would seem that RISC-V presents a serious challenge for ARM, this doesn’t mean that ARM will fail as a result of the processor architecture. However, it is certain that as RISC-V devices become more available, ARM will have to make some difficult choices regarding its offerings and licensing models. By far, the biggest advantage that ARM currently has is its immense amount of software support, its engineering experience, and its proven capabilities as an architecture. But as RISC-V becomes more popular amongst engineers (which will also come with increased software support), ARM will need to develop new strategies to stay relevant. 

One such option that ARM could consider is the release of an open-source variant of the ARM architecture that allows engineers to use low-end ARM cores for free. While this will reduce ARM’s income to some degree, encouraging engineers to stick with the architecture will ensure that as projects become more complex (thus requiring more complex processors), engineers will be more likely to choose ARM processors through familiarity and compatibility. 

Overall, it is hard to judge if ARM will face competition from RISC-V, but if ARM doesn’t consider the benefits of open-source architectures, then it is likely that ARM will quickly fall behind as engineers become sick and tired of paying large sums of money to companies for intellectual property. 


By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation, developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.