Google makes Android compatible with RISC-V processors… and prepares for after ARM?

While almost all Android devices work with ARM chips, the open source community has been working so hard on RISC-V that Google has made its AOSP (Android Open Source Project) version compatible with these new chips. And prepare for the future.

In the Android world, there are only ARM chips. But this situation may change even faster than expected. At the RISC-V Summit in San Jose, California, Google’s operating system achieved a major milestone: support for RISC-V instruction set-based chips in Android AOSP.

It was Lars Bergstrom, director of engineering and head of programming languages ​​at Google, who formalized support for the open source version of Android (Android Open Source Project or AOSP) for RISC-V chips. A basic support, but still incomplete: in addition to the many years of optimizations that the ARM chips have benefited from, it also lacks, and above all, the execution environment for the applications (Android Runtime or ART). In short: if the Android system officially supports RISC V chips and development boards, the same does not apply to applications. Many software tools—including compilers and drivers—still need to be developed or adapted for a complete app ecosystem to emerge. But this announcement shows that the “RISC-V revolution” is coming.

Everyone is pushing RISC-V

We owe the first adaptations of Android AOSP capable of working with RISC-V chips to Alibaba. Very advanced in the management of these chips for reasons of sovereignty (it is a Swiss foundation that manages this open architecture, and not a Western private company as for ARM and x86), the Chinese have their own development unit of semiconductors. A team called “T-Head” that designs its own RISC-V cores as well as its own chips. And Alibaba is not alone in working to popularize RISC-V. There is also the chip production chain present, from the giant Intel, which has announced that it will take over the firing of chips with its open foundry program, via TSMC and SiFive, which has already validated the production process in 5 n. And there is also government actors such as NASA and ESA, who have adopted these cores for their future space processors.

Also read: Why NASA and ESA are betting on RISC V for their future space chips (Sep 2022)

While the entire hardware industry is buzzing around RISC-V, the software world is no exception. Because Google’s announcement is not isolated: support for RISC-V is growing month by month on Linux, a system that is the source of the Android kernel. Although no distro was running a RISC-V system properly just two years ago, the ecosystem already has graphics drivers for some GPUs. And should even benefit from a dedicated GPU within a few months.

Android yes, but…

A RISC-V development board under Android with a touchscreen interface… like a smartphone. /CNLinux

Far from being a flash in the pan, the emergence of RISC-V is more like an earth swell. Which could end in a tidal wave if the traditional actors do not take the good wind. From Alibaba to SiFive, more and more companies are developing “custom” CPU cores. And startups like Ventana Microsystems are already preparing supercomputer chips engraved in 5 nm and embedding 192 cores!

Also read: The first RISC-V processor for PC arrives and provides an alternative to ARM (Sept 2020)

From there to predicting the arrival of RISC-V chips in our smartphones within three years, there is only one step… which would be risky to take. On the one hand, Android should not be limited to a mobile vision: Google’s operating system can be used to operate a variety of other devices. On the other hand, the fragmentation of the Android world, caused by the many ARM chip vendors and suppliers, has long damaged the stability of the ecosystem. There’s no doubt that Android experts will be very (very!) vigilant before validating any chip for versions of Android that integrate Google Mobile Services.


RISC-V Foundation (via Twitter)

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