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NVIDIA buying Arm is a really bad idea


I’m an NVIDIA fan. The company is best known for making uber-powerful GPUs that almost single-handedly drive the gaming industry, but it also makes things like machine learning servers, self-driving cars, robots, and the best Android TV box ever made. I think all of their products are great and even enjoyed using NVIDIA-powered phones before Qualcomm drove the company out of the industry.

I’m Team NVIDIA for most things. Not this thing, though.

Call me a fanboy, call me whatever, but I like the company and the things it makes. But I hate the idea of NVIDIA controlling Arm, the company that makes the reference design that every phone chipmaker uses to build processors.

This is all just a rumor, and like a lot of rumors might not even be remotely true. But we do know that SoftBank — the Japanese firm that has control over Arm Holdings — isn’t afraid to buy and sell other companies. Hearing a SoftBank executive publicly say that the company was considering selling Arm Holdings would not surprise me one bit.

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It’s also not surprising that NVIDIA would be interested in acquiring Arm. When you think of NVIDIA, you probably think about graphics cards. The company also makes a really good ARM CPU-based chip that combines a fast processor with GPU cores for computing and it’s one of the most powerful ARM-based chips you can buy today. Forget powering a phone or tablet, something like a Jetson Xavier NX can run a server or power a self-driving car.

The problem is that Arm Holdings (the company) licenses ARM (all caps and the name of the design Arm makes) CPU design to, well, everybody. ARM cores are at the base of every chip in every mobile device made today as well as millions of servers, scientific devices, hobby boards like the Raspberry Pi, and Internet of Things devices like a Nest Mini or the Nest Wifi.

NVIDIA would still license ARM designs to everybody, but those designs would slowly change.

NVIDIA could still license the design if it were in charge and would because it’s lucrative. Forcing whoever buys Arm to continue the licensing program will surely be one of the stipulations of sale regulators in the U.S. and U.K. — Arm is based in Cambridge — place on any acquisition. I’m not worried that NVIDIA would cut off Qualcomm or Apple or Samsung from making CPUs based on ARM designs.

I’m worried about the designs themselves. NVIDIA — or any other company that makes ARM chips today — would want future designs to benefit its current development. I think NVIDIA makes a heck of a chip, so that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but Apple and Qualcomm also make a heck of a chip and those companies wouldn’t be very happy with changes that force them to work around issues.

This would definitely happen if any company building ARM-based chips were to buy Arm Holdings, not just NVIDIA. That’s why we should be against it and regulators need to not allow it. If ARM designs were to slowly favor NVIDIA’s chip development preference, any innovation that may have come from Qualcomm or Samsung would be stifled. This is how you stagnate an industry that already is highly dependent on one product: ARM CPUs.

A neutral company that doesn’t build chips needs to buy Arm and pump it full of cash.

As much as I would love to see NVIDIA able to design and build a full chip package from the ground up, and as great as I think that chip might be, I just don’t want to see it happen. It’d be bad for technology as a whole, which is more important. NVIDIA should keep building amazing graphics adapters and legendary Android TV devices but not start designing the reference that every technology company in the world depends on.

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