Qualcomm Acquires Nuvia in Custom CPU Push

Move broadly supported by smartphone, PC and auto manufacturers

Yesterday, the news flow from CES 2021 got completely blown out of the water with two big announcements in the semiconductor industry: Intel will see its third CEO in four years as Pat Gelsinger rejoins the company from VMware, and Qualcomm is making a $1.4 billion move for Nuvia. Here’s my view on the latter announcement.

Nuvia is a two-year-old start-up that specializes in CPU design. It was founded by John Bruno, Manu Gulati and Gerard Williams, who have more than 20 years of leadership experience from their time at Google, Apple, Arm, Broadcom and AMD. Most notable here is Gerard Williams’ role in designing Apple’s “A” series processors — he’s now being sued by Apple for breach of contract.

Nuvia was on course to deliver a CPU core optimized for data centres, but under Qualcomm the plan for the team will be significantly broader.

Nuvia gives Qualcomm leading talent and intellectual property to develop custom, high-performance, low-power CPU cores that can further set apart Qualcomm platforms for smartphones, PCs and automotive solutions. Differentiation in the CPU market is challenging and extremely resource-intensive, but Qualcomm has clearly decided that it’s time to raise its bets with a leading team focussed on complementary segments.

Custom CPU design isn’t new to Qualcomm, but it’s taken a back seat in recent years as the company has shifted to stock Arm CPU cores, most recently using Arm’s Cortex-X1 in the Snapdragon 888. At the same time, Qualcomm has increased investment in other areas of the system such as GPUs, digital and image signal processors and artificial intelligence accelerators, in addition to its investments in 4G, 5G and Wi-Fi connectivity.

This acquisition sees Qualcomm acquiring some of the top talent that helped Apple lead the industry with its own CPU development. Crucially, it ensures that the CPU element of Qualcomm’s platforms maintains performance improvements in parallel with areas such as connectivity, GPU and artificial intelligence accelerators. Although heterogeneous computing — that is, use of the appropriate element of the system for the right application at the right time — remains central to Qualcomm’s ethos, it’s inescapable that the CPU is a central part of any platform, be it for smartphones, vehicles or PCs.

Given its broad focus on these three segments (and beyond), Qualcomm has decided to raise its investment in a design team for custom CPUs. Apple has shown what’s possible with its “A” series chips, and the strong support for Qualcomm’s move from smartphone, auto and PC manufacturers underlines the importance of ramping up power and performance to deliver a raft of new products. Microsoft, Google, Samsung, Acer, Asus, Bosch, Continental, General Motors, HMD Global, Honor, HP, Lenovo, LG Electronics, LG Mobile, Oppo, Panasonic, Renault, Sharp, Sony, Vivo and Xiaomi were all quoted in support.

I can’t think of a time when a proposed acquisition received such direct and vocal support. Qualcomm’s move to acquire Nuvia not only shows its pivotal role in the tech ecosystem today, but also highlights the desire of its customers to see Qualcomm maintain that role and continue to drive platform performance.