In just a few short years, Huawei was able to become a well-known brand in the world of smartphones, but now it is suffering a lot from being banned from doing business with American companies. It is still possible that you are reading this article on one of Huawei’s mobile phones, but the Chinese company has had a smaller and smaller share of the worldwide supply of mobile phones in a continuous process. If you use one of the Huawei handsets, all of your apps will probably run on the Crane chipset, developed by HiSillicon, a Huawei-based semiconductor company based in Shenzhen. Nevertheless, the sanctions have worked, and the future looks very uncertain for High Silicon in 2021 and beyond.
Just like the other two competitors, Samsung and Apple, Huawei designs its own processors. By doing this, the company can have more control over how software and hardware interact with each other, and the end result is products that perform better than conventional devices and pursue specific goals. Likewise, high-silicon has become an integral part of Huawei’s mobile unit and its success. The range of processors manufactured by High Silicon has grown over the years and now includes not only flagship products, but also mid-range devices.
In this article, we will review everything you need to know about High Silicon, this Chinese company that designs chipsets.
A Brief History of Silicon
Huawei is one of the veterans of the telecommunications business. The company was founded in 1987 by Ren Zhengfei, a former engineer of the People’s Liberation Army of China. The same thing has always affected the US government’s attitude towards the company – both historically and in the recent case of widespread sanctions.
Huawei launched its mobile unit in 2003, and the first mobile phone, the C300, was launched in 2004. In 2009, the Huawei U8820, also known as the T-Mobile Pulse, became the company’s first Android device. By 2012, Huawei also launched its first 4G smartphone, the Ascend P1. Before entering the world of smartphones, Huawei offered telecommunications networking equipment to its customers around the world, and this business is still at the heart of Huawei’s business.
High Silicon was founded in 2004 to develop integrated circuits and microprocessors for a wide range of consumer electronics as well as industrial devices: things like router chips and modems for networking equipment. But before the arrival of Huawei at the helm of Richard Yu in 2011, High Silicon had not entered the field of chipset design for smartphones. The rationale behind Yu’s decision was clear: Personalized chips allowed Huawei to differentiate itself from other Chinese manufacturers.
Crane’s first flagship mobile chip was the K3 series in 2012, but Huawei continued to use chips manufactured by other companies at the time. It was in 2014 that the Crane brand really came to the mobile chips we know today. The Crane 910 powered the P6 S, MediaPad and Ascend P7.
Just like other mobile chip designers, High Silicon built its processors based on the ARM CPU architecture. Unlike Apple, HighSilicon does not develop custom processors based on the logo architecture. Instead, the company goes for ARM prefabricated components – such as the Cortex-A77 processor and Mali GPUs – and integrates them with home-developed solutions such as 5G modems, image signal processors and machine learning accelerators. .
Huawei also does not sell silicon chips to third parties. These chipsets are only used in the company’s own smartphones. Nevertheless, Huawei chips are still a serious competitor to other players in the market.
High Silicon, Huawei and trade ban with the United States
It’s a bit simplistic to say that 2020 was a difficult year for Huawei. The ban on doing business with the United States forced Huawei to sell mobile phones that did not feature Google services. As a result, consumers’ interest in these devices became much lower than before, and Huawei hastily developed “Huawei Mobile Services” to make up for the shortfall.
As the pressure increased, key chip companies such as TSMC were no longer allowed to produce high-silicon chips for Huawei. Huawei was able to place its latest production order with TSMC ahead of the US Deadline on September 15, 2020, which included 5-nanometer Crane 9000 chipsets. But reports suggest that TSMC may not have been able to deliver Huawei’s orders in full, and as a result, the Chinese company has had access to a very limited stock of its premium processors.
In the long run, Huawei has no choice but to go for alternative chips to competitors like MediaTek. But the real pain for Huawei was that it could no longer access the important capabilities and technologies that High Silicon had spent years embedding in the crane. Without Crane, it is very unlikely that Huawei smartphones will be as competitive as they have been in recent years.
But it did not end there, and Huawei is also not allowed to buy foreign chips if they use American technology (read Qualcomm technology). The loss of key silicon partners in the development and production of the chipset was a deadly blow, and now Huawei is more closed-minded and has only a few options.
Silicon and Qualcomm Competitions
Some of the current tensions in the world of chipsets can be traced back to the old rivalry between Huawei and mobile processor giant Qualcomm.
Huawei used to be one of the biggest buyers of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon processors, and in recent years has continued to use the company’s chipsets in cheaper, Honor-branded handsets (Huawei has now sold the Honor brand). However, Huawei’s most popular recent smartphones are based entirely on crane technology. As Huawei’s share of the smartphone market grew over the past few years, Qualcomm’s partners were feeling the pressure.
Although Snapdragon Kwakam continues to be a force to be reckoned with by most smart phone manufacturers, Huawei’s entry into the top three manufacturers has created a strong competition in this market. A 2018 Silicon Valley executive told The Information that the company was looking at Qualcomm as its “No. 1 competitor.”
But the tension began long before sales and popularity of Huawei mobile phones increased. In fact, it started shortly after Highsilicon unveiled its first mobile processor. Although Huawei was still a Qualcomm customer, the American company began to obscure its product information, worried that the Chinese would share their information with High Silicon. And Qualcomm’s concern was probably not so unfounded, as Huawei employees noted that working with Google to develop the Nexus 6P taught them a great deal about software and hardware optimization. But nothing was ever proven in court.
Outside of the world of chip systems, the two tech giants have been battling IoT-related patents and other connected technologies (especially those involving 5G). Qualcomm holds most of the patents related to the industry standards of CDMA, 3G and 4G, and these patents, along with the integrated modems in its chipsets, quickly made Snapdragon processors one of the most important components of the Android ecosystem. But with the advent of Qualcomm 5G, Qualcomm no longer had such a well-established position, and Huawei filed a number of different patents for 5G technologies for consumers and industrial customers, and so the competition reached its peak.
Line of silicon crane chipsets
The latest high-end silicon chipset is the 5G crane, which supports 5G, is built with a 5-nanometer process, and boosts the Huawei Mate 40 family. This chipset is the next version of the Crane 990 that you could find in the Huawei P40 family as well as the Honor 30 Pro Plus.
As you’d expect from convertible chips to the most premium models, the Crane houses 9,000 high-performance components: on the one hand, we see a core octa structure with Cortex-A77 and A55, and on the other, a 24-core Mali-G78 GPU. It is found in it and therefore we are on the side of the most powerful chipset in the history of silicon. Of course, this chipset is not exactly as advanced as its competitors, which use newer logo cores. High Silicon also improves image and video processing units and incorporates an integrated 5G modem into the package. Another prominent feature of the Crane 9000 is the use of a neural processing unit (NPU) with a three-cluster structure based on Huawei’s home architecture called “DaVinci”.
Huawei has also introduced the Crane 800 family of chipsets for mid-range and more affordable phones. These chips are aimed at achieving poorer CPU and GPU performance, but the Crane 820 supports 5G technology below 6 GHz to be able to match its competitors. Model numbers 700 and 600 were also used for weaker products, but the two series are now retired. Huawei, meanwhile, has been somewhat inclined to use MediaTek chipsets on cheaper mobile phones, and now more than ever with US sanctions.
Silicon beyond 2021
High-silicon, like its parent company, has evolved rapidly over the last half-decade. From a not-so-well-known player in the world of chipsets, High Silicon has grown into a big company, challenging some of its biggest business names. The effectiveness of this chip design company has undoubtedly been due to the success of Huawei and Honor mobile brands. But the two companies have now been slaughtered for barring trade with the United States.
Unfortunately for Huawei, the restrictions on doing business with the United States in 2020 were so severe that the Huawei Mate 40, as well as the P50 family, are likely to be the latest crane-powered phones. It all depends on how well Huawei is able to supply and maintain inventory of the Crane 9000. After that, Huawei will probably find itself buying chips from its silicon rivals, and as a result, lose the advantage of embedding home chipsets in its mobile phones.
No one knows exactly what the future will hold for Highsilicon as well as the Crane brand. The production of flagship chips in Chinese factories does not seem so possible in the medium term, and the number of potential partners is becoming less and less every day. The anti-Chinese view is likely to hurt Huawei’s plans for 5G infrastructure as well, and this will once again hurt silicon. The two businesses have always worked hand in hand, and after a few years of mutual success, now is the time to go the hard way together.