At a more technical level, RISC-V designs are easier to modify than traditional ISAs, allowing for greater flexibility. They are also compatible with a wide range of applications. Even though a few doubters continue to argue that RISC-V could face challenges across ecosystems, companies are tapping into RISC-V cores for all of artificial intelligence (AI) image sensors, security management, AI computing, and machine control systems for 5G. Other companies are planning on using it for different storage, graphics, and machine-leearning applications. Even Intel’s foundry services division is partnering with RISC-V player SiFive.3
To be clear, the technology is still relatively new, and RISC-V is not yet suitable for all markets or customers. The technology has disadvantages as well as benefits: It is relatively new, has few high-profile design wins, lacks some of the features of Arm or x86 ISAs, and doesn’t have the same level of support for designers. Additionally, fabricating a RISC-V chip at a foundry is not materially easier, faster, or different from making a traditional closed ISA-based chip: The manufacturing technology is the same. Even by 2025, sales of chips from Intel (particularly its x86 chip) and Arm will likely be many times larger than the new kid on the block.
So, who cares about RISC-V? The answer differs depending on the stakeholder:
China cares. As a result of recent US sanctions, Chinese manufacturers have lost or fear losing access to x86 or Arm ISAs. Even if trade policies change, Chinese companies would remain aware that, at any future point, the “ISA rug” could get pulled out from under them. Going the RISC-V route could give them a way around that possibility, helping China meet its aggressive goals for reducing reliance on chip imports. The country has been trying to become more self-sufficient in making chips for years, although this has seen some challenges.4 About a third of RISC-V organization members are from China, and multiple large Chinese companies have announced RISC-V chips already.
Startups care. In the three years between 2020 and 2022, venture capitalists (VCs) will invest about US$22 billion into startup chip companies of all kinds. To put this into perspective, that’s more than the US$21 billion they invested in the entire 11 years between 2005 and 2016.5 All that money means more chips being made—but startups usually must make them on a budget. A million-dollar license fee may not matter to one of the world’s largest smartphone companies, but it does matter for a startup that has relatively little cash and a monthly burn rate. It’s not surprising that, according to a 2020 study, more than 23% of new ASIC (application-specific integrated circuit) and FPGA (field-programmable gate array) chips from startups incorporated at least one RISC-V processor.6
AI cares. A number of new AI chip designs appear to be using RISC-V. Interestingly, expectations were that the technology would not be used in data centers in the near term, but some speculate that AI chips may allow RISC-V to break into the data center market earlier than expected.7
The automotive and IoT markets care. The served addressable market (SAM) for RISC-V in automotive was 4 million cores in 2020, forecast to rise to 150 million cores in 2022, and to 2.9 billion cores by 2025.8 Supporting that potential, a leading RISC-V company and a leading automotive chipmaker announced a strategic partnership in 2021 targeting multiple auto applications with high-end solutions.9 The chips in autos tend to be less powerful than personal computer or data center CPUs, so success in vehicles could augur well for RISC-V doing well in other Internet of Things markets.
PC chipmakers care less, at least for now. The PC market is unlikely to shift in a large way to RISC-V in the near term. Although there is a Chinese initiative to use the technology to build laptops that support various open-source browsers, the goal is to build 2,000 laptops by the end of 2022,10 compared to a global annual market of roughly 300 million PCs in 2020. There is also a Russian initiative, but its goal of selling 60,000 systems by 2025 is similarly modest.11 That said, the SAM opportunity for RISC-V in laptops is large—just under 300 million processing cores in 2022.12
Foundries care a bit. Although ISAs don’t matter much to those who actually make the chips, it is possible that RISC-V, with its lower cost and greater flexibility, could lead to a Cambrian-style explosion in new chip designs. Hundreds or thousands of new chips may need to be manufactured by foundries, in low volumes at first, but any potential boom in new chip designs would be a tailwind for semiconductor manufacturers.