Today Qualcomm has announced they will be acquiring NUVIA for $1.4bn – acquiring the start-up company consisting of industry veterans which originally were behind the creation of Apple’s high-performance CPU cores. The transaction has important ramifications for Qualcomm’s future in high-performance computing both in mobile, as well as laptop segment, with a possible re-entry into the server market.

NUVIA was originally founded in February 2019 and coming out of stealth-mode in November of that year. The start-up was founded by industry veterans Gerard Williams III, John Bruno and Manu Gulati, having extensive industry experience at Google, Apple, Arm, Broadcom and AMD.

Gerard Williams III in particular was the chief architect for over a decade at Apple, having been the lead architect on all of Apple’s CPU designs up to the Lightning core in the A13 – with the newer Apple A14 and Apple M1 Firestorm cores possibly also having been in the pipeline under his direction.

NUVIA had been able to recruit a lot of top industry talent from various CPU design teams across the industry, and had planned to enter the high-performance computing and enterprise market with a new server SoC with a new CPU core dubbed “Phoenix”.

NUVIA particularly had made aggressive claims about how their design would be able to significantly outperform the competition both in raw performance and power efficiency once it came to market – usually such claims are always to be taken with scepticism, however due to the members of the design team and talent having proven themselves in the form of Apple’s very successful CPU microarchitectures, there’s a lot more weight and credibility to them compared to other start-ups.

As a new entity in the industry, the company always had an uphill battle against the established giants, so even though they could have had talent and the technology, it’s not a guarantee that they would have been successful in business. I admit that the during the initial company announcement back in 2019 I did think to myself that it would have been possible that the team is looking to get acquired by another big player, which ended up happening today.

Qualcomm’s Gain and Possibilities

Qualcomm’s purchase of the whole company for 1.4bn USD can very much be seen as an endorsement to NUVIA’s talent and claims, and could mark an important shift in the industry, vastly expanding the possibilities of the combined entities compared to as if they were separate entities.

From Qualcomm’s perspective, it’s a bit of a bitter-sweet deal that follows the company’s failed Centriq business which back in 2018 had taken critical blows and cancellations as the company had to cut costs and lay off significant amount of people amongst their data-center unit.

At the time, Qualcomm was still maintaining a custom CPU microarchitecture team for server SoCs, having a few years earlier abandoned their efforts at custom CPUs for mobile, given Arm’s more power efficient and better PPA (Performance, Power, Area) advantages of licensable Cortex cores. Eventually the design teams fizzled out with the years, leaving Qualcomm no longer having the capability to design custom CPU microarchitectures, on top of them also never being all that competitive.

Qualcomm now acquiring NUVIA gives them the possibility to take advantage of the start-up’s early work in the server space, possibly reinvigorating the company’s ambitions in the server space, and giving them a second shot at the market. It’s to be noted however that in today’s press release about the acquisition there had been no mention of server or enterprise plans.

Furthermore, the move also has larger repercussions in the consumer space, with Qualcomm claiming that NUVIA CPU designs are expected to be deployed in flagship mobile SoCs and next generation laptops, as well as other industrial applications such as digital cockpits and ADAS.

In essence, Qualcomm is looking to leverage NUVIA’s CPUs to replace Arm’s current Cortex CPU IP and gain a competitive advantage in terms of performance. This is an important point of the transaction as it means that Qualcomm has confidence that NUVIA’s CPU designs and roadmap would be competitive or exceed that of Arm’s offerings, and put forth the money and investment towards those goals.

There’s also two more aspects in Qualcomm’s consideration for the purchase: With Nvidia’s plans to acquire Arm Holdings announced last September, this would give Qualcomm an important level of independence and safety in regards to their future product roadmaps – just in case Nvidia would make substantial changes to the CPU IP licensing model.

Secondly, Apple’s recent move to ditch x86 in favour of their own Arm-based Apple Silicon SoCs, starting with the new Apple M1 and planning to make a complete product transition in the coming 2 years has greatly pushed the Arm ecosystem forward. While Qualcomm to date has released laptop-specific Snapdragon designs, they still rely on Arm’s Cortex CPU IP and currently cannot compete with Apple’s silicon. In essence, Qualcomm could be viewing this as a large long-term bet at an attempt to establish themselves as the de facto Arm silicon supplier in this market segment, and alternative to Apple Silicon products. NUVIA in the past had commented that this would have been a possible long-term goal beyond their server space focus, however the acquisition by Qualcomm now vastly accelerate any such plans.

Press release:

SAN DIEGO, Jan. 13, 2021 /PRNewswire/ -- Qualcomm Incorporated (NASDAQ: QCOM) today announced that its subsidiary, Qualcomm Technologies, Inc., has entered into a definitive agreement to acquire NUVIA for approximately $1.4 billion before working capital and other adjustments. The transaction is subject to customary closing conditions, including regulatory approval under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act of 1976, as amended. 

NUVIA comprises a proven world-class CPU and technology design team, with industry-leading expertise in high performance processors, Systems on a Chip (SoC) and power management for compute-intensive devices and applications. The addition of NUVIA CPUs to Qualcomm Technologies' already leading mobile graphics processing unit (GPU), AI engine, DSP and dedicated multimedia accelerators will further extend the leadership of Qualcomm Snapdragon platforms, and positions Snapdragon as the preferred platform for the future of connected computing.

...

NUVIA CPUs are expected to be integrated across Qualcomm Technologies' broad portfolio of products, powering flagship smartphones, next-generation laptops, and digital cockpits, as well as Advanced Driver Assistance Systems, extended reality and infrastructure networking solutions.

...

As part of the transaction, NUVIA founders Gerard Williams III, Manu Gulati and John Bruno, and their employees will be joining Qualcomm.

"CPU performance leadership will be critical in defining and delivering on the next era of computing innovation," said Gerard Williams CEO of NUVIA. "The combination of NUVIA and Qualcomm will bring the industry's best engineering talent, technology and resources together to create a new class of high-performance computing platforms that set the bar for our industry. We couldn't be more excited for the opportunities ahead."

In essence, the acquisition of NUVIA greatly increases Qualcomm’s future prospective in the mobile and consumer laptop market, with possible long-term positive repercussions for the company’s product’s competitiveness. We’re looking forward to see how this plays out over the next coming years.

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  • lmcd - Thursday, January 14, 2021 - link

    This wasn't precisely true before ARMv8 but Qualcomm never really nailed the transition. Only released product was the Snap 820, which outperformed the A57 but not even the A72, IIRC. Reply
  • mode_13h - Thursday, January 14, 2021 - link

    My sense is that they scrapped their proprietary cores for much the same reasons as Samsung: ARM was improving so fast that (unlike Apple) they were unwilling to put the kind of resources into their design teams that would've been needed to stay ahead. They saw the writing on the wall and decided to cut their losses.

    The next question I would've had is about GPUs, but the Nuvia purchase signifies that Qualcomm still sees value in developing its own proprietary IP blocks.
    Reply
  • Silver5urfer - Friday, January 15, 2021 - link

    They put all that into Centriq. They put more effort into that CPU, which was supposed to be the ARM server DC market spearhead. As AT proposes and how ARM fans here mention how x86 is dead and all.

    Guess what ? It was closed down, Qcomm the corp which pushes R&D for ROI closed its complete custom server design and Anand Chandrasekhar who was the lead also left the company.
    Reply
  • benedict - Thursday, January 14, 2021 - link

    There's one thing that bothers me. If Nuvia's greatest asset is its talented people, what's stopping these people from leaving the company once the takeover is done and founding another new company? Reply
  • mode_13h - Thursday, January 14, 2021 - link

    "Golden handcuffs". Knowing this, the company doing the acquisition typically places conditions on the stock options of the company being acquired, in order to keep around key employees for a few years. So, they can certainly leave early, but they won't get their big payday.

    Ultimately, if they're in California, nothing is preventing them from going to a competitor (or creating one), but they can't take any IP with them (as Apple alleges they did, when founding Nuvia - see my above comment about Qualcomm's legal team).
    Reply
  • nico_mach - Thursday, January 14, 2021 - link

    Since the company was so cheap and so important, why didn't Apple acquire them? I have to think that Apple already has the key people or has another path charted out to stay ahead of Quallcomm/Nuvia. Letting Nuvia go doesn't make much sense otherwise - though of course Apple and Tim Cook aren't perfect, either. While they often blunder on certain hardware (input devices come to mind) I can't imagine Tim blundering on a key piece of IP that represents a huge advantage for multiple years, when all he has to do is write a tiny check (tiny for Apple). Reply
  • Raqia - Thursday, January 14, 2021 - link

    GW III was personally sued by Apple:

    https://www.bizjournals.com/sanjose/news/2020/02/1...

    He stated that he left due to Apple's unwillingness to allow him to do a server oriented part:

    "In his lawsuit, Williams said that he raised the prospect of Apple doing server chips as far back as 2010 and the company rejected the idea then and subsequently. He said his co-founders recruited him to start Nuvia with them and that he avoided being involved with the company until after he left Apple."

    The issue may not be in the specific direction of this initiative so much as the general culture of Apple given his willingness to be bought out by Qualcomm. I doubt he'd be rebuffed by Qualcomm if he leads equally ambitious initiatives in the HPC datacenter direction even if the first parts they are collaborating on are more aligned with mobile. With Qualcomm, he now has access to leading edge fabs, world class support, and will likely have a lot more leeway to steer hardware initiatives while surrounded by other top talent.

    I suspect Qualcomm has already been partnering with NUVIA on a project close to tapeout (maybe a laptop oriented 9cx SoC?) and an agreement was reached because of the mutually compatible feelings over the collaboration before another round of fund raising...
    Reply
  • mode_13h - Thursday, January 14, 2021 - link

    Like Raqiq said and what I just posed above, Apple is already seeking a legal remedy to this.

    Another point is that if Apple would've paid $Billions to acquire IP they think was already theirs, it would set a dangerous precedent for other Apple employees to leave and start business with Apple IP that the company would be forced to re-acquire.
    Reply
  • markiz - Tuesday, January 26, 2021 - link

    But they would have stopped a competitor in it's tracks, and would still retain the option to claim it was their in the 1st place?
    Plus, it's not like you HAVE to follow internal precedents.

    It looks as if they just said that they already have something in the pipeline to be ahead anyway.
    Reply
  • Tams80 - Friday, January 15, 2021 - link

    Apple aren't competing with others much though. They make plenty of money selling to their niche ecosystem. So, as long as others aren't orders of magnitude better (hence enticing those in their ecosystem to leave), they don't have much to worry about. Reply

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