Intel seemingly hints of potential patent infringement around x86 emulation on ARM

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Intel is warning other companies that emulation of x86 on various processors requires the proper intellectual property licensing. Do Microsoft, Qualcomm, and their PC partners make the cut?

At the end of what looked like a blog post simply celebrating Intel’s 40-year anniversary of the launch of the first x86 processor, the Intel 8086, is a potential warning from the chip maker for those looking to emulate x86 on various processors.

The timing of the June 8 blog post is interesting, given Microsoft and Qualcomm have stated their intent to provide x86 emulation on coming Windows 10 on ARM-based PCs. Microsoft has yet to start testing publicly its Windows 10 on ARM release, but officials said recently that the first Windows 10 on ARM PCs are expected from OEMs like HP, ASUS, and Lenovo sometime soon.

Intel didn’t name Microsoft, Qualcomm or any specific PC makers in its June 8 post entitled “X86: Approaching 40 and Still Going Strong.” But there’s definitely a hint of some possible intellectual property (IP) wranglings ahead.

From Intel’s post:

“There have been reports that some companies may try to emulate Intel’s proprietary x86 ISA without Intel’s authorization. Emulation is not a new technology, and Transmeta was notably the last company to claim to have produced a compatible x86 processor using emulation (‘code morphing’) techniques. Intel enforced patents relating to SIMD instruction set enhancements against Transmeta’s x86 implementation even though it used emulation. In any event, Transmeta was not commercially successful, and it exited the microprocessor business 10 years ago.

Only time will tell if new attempts to emulate Intel’s x86 ISA will meet a different fate. Intel welcomes lawful competition, and we are confident that Intel’s microprocessors, which have been specifically optimized to implement Intel’s x86 ISA for almost four decades, will deliver amazing experiences, consistency across applications, and a full breadth of consumer offerings, full manageability and IT integration for the enterprise. However, we do not welcome unlawful infringement of our patents, and we fully expect other companies to continue to respect Intel’s intellectual property rights. Strong intellectual property protections make it possible for Intel to continue to invest the enormous resources required to advance Intel’s dynamic x86 ISA, and Intel will maintain its vigilance to protect its innovations and investments.”

I asked Intel if its post was intended to be a warning shot across the Microsoft/Qualcomm bow. A spokesperson’s only response, was an emailed statement from Steve Rodgers, Intel executive vice president and general counsel:

“Intel respects intellectual property rights and we expect others to do the same. x86 technology is both proprietary and central to our business, and we’re concerned any time it appears that others may be copying it inappropriately. We will thoroughly evaluate any products that claim to emulate x86 technology, and vigorously enforce our intellectual property rights if we believe they are infringed.”

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