Will a Chinese-made chip one day threaten Intel's dominance of the global microprocessor market?
That was one of the questions raised by recent media coverage of an In-Stat report that detailed the features of China's Godson-2 processor and highlighted similarities with MIPS Technologies' MIPS instruction set and the architecture of an earlier chip, MIPS Technologies' R10000.
The Godson-2 is a 64-bit microprocessor developed by a team of researchers at the Institute of Computing Technology (ICT), part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. Sometimes called the Dragon processor because of the Chinese version of its name, the Godson-2 and its predecessor are among several Chinese efforts to design and market a homegrown microprocessor.
While ICT handles the design of the Godson chips, the responsibility for sales and marketing belongs to an ICT spin-off company, BLX IC Design Co., which is headed by Eddie Zeng, a former Intel executive.
The first member of the Godson family, the 32-bit Godson-1 processor, was introduced in 2002. It ran at a clock speed of 266MHz and was produced by contract chip manufacturer Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC).
The latest addition to the family, the Godson-2, is produced by another contract chip maker, Shanghai's Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp. (SMIC), and is available in versions that run at 400MHz or 500MHz. Both chips are manufactured using a 180-nanometer process and are based on what ICT and BLX have described as a "MIPS-like" instruction set.
Although the Godson-2 entered commercial production earlier this year, the chip itself isn't new. General information about it has been available since early last year, but the release of the In-Stat report pushed the processor into the Western trade media spotlight.
The report, written by Tom Halfhill, a senior analyst for In-Stat's Microprocessor Report, was announced on July 25 in a press release that claimed, "The Godson architecture is an unauthorized variation of the popular MIPS architecture from MIPS Technologies, a U.S. company."
In-Stat went on to say in the release that similarities between the Godson-2 and both the MIPS architecture and the R10000 "could raise some controversial intellectual-property issues, because MIPS Technologies has no connection with Godson and hasn't licensed any technology to the Godson designers."
These claims touched on a sensitive issue: Intellectual property matters have long been a source of political friction between the U.S. and China. But Halfhill's 10-page report -- a copy of which was seen by IDG News Service -- does not claim that the Godson-2 infringed on MIPS Technologies' intellectual property.
"I'm not sure that they're actually stepping on any MIPS intellectual property," Halfhill said in a telephone interview.
Weiwu Hu, the lead designer of the Godson-2 and a professor at ICT, said the chip is not based on MIPS Technologies' intellectual property and is not a copy of the R10000 processor. The Godson-2 uses a modified version of the MIPS instruction set that substitutes different instructions in lieu of those patented by MIPS, he said.