In the recent turn of events, former Huawei subsidiary Honor appeared with a new surprise of establishing a chip designing unit in China. Meanwhile, Oppo has called it a quit in its chip ambition named “Zheku”.
This is the latest addition to the effort to pursue chip development alongside Vivo and Xiaomi.
What’s the matter?
China’s business data provider Qichacha revealed that Honor has registered a new subsidiary, Shanghai Honor Intelligent Technology Development Co on Wednesday in Shanghai’s coastal Lingang Free Trade Zone with a registered capital of 100 million yuan (US$14 million).
According to the details, the business scope of this new subsidiary includes chip design, sales and related services, and development of artificial intelligence (AI) application software, public information shows.
Honor said the subsidiary will become one of its five research centers inside the country. It will focus on research and development of core software, graphics algorithms, communications, and photography. The four other facilities are located in Beijing, Shenzhen, Xian, and Nanjing, as shown on Honor’s website.
But the company has not confirmed specifically, whether the center will be used for chip development purposes.
Honor already began:
In 2022, during an interview after the Honor 70 series launch event, Honor CEO Zhao Ming once said, “Whether to plug in a self-developed chip or not depends on the system design and product experience needs. He gave an example, plug in an ISP or plug in another chip. Honor itself is not particularly entangled in this aspect.
At that time, Zhao motioned that Honor will do it if necessary.” “Objectively speaking, the challenges and technologies of making a plug-in chip are not particularly big today.”
Zhao Ming also revealed that Honor itself has such a chip (external chip), whether it is a product designed for the future, a product under development, or a product already on the market, it also uses such a chip.
“As far as Honor itself is concerned, we don’t think this is something that is particularly worthy of publicity, because the ultimate question is, what kind of improvements have I brought to consumers by using this chip. In the end, it is still up to the consumers. In terms of value and experience, the future will use a dual-core design based on product definition.” said Zhao in 2022.
After Honor Magic 5 series unveiling in March this year, the phone maker revealed its self-developed industry’s first radio frequency enhancement chip C1.
It was launched on the Honor Magic 5 Pro/Ultimate Edition. Honor claims that the chip can greatly improve the signal strength of cellular networks, WiFi, and Bluetooth, and can be used in weak signal scenarios such as basements and basements to adopt the advantages of fast network return, live broadcast without freezing, and long-term calls under weak networks.
In the following, Zhao Ming said in an interview that Honor will formulate chip strategies according to needs, “We are neither blindly optimistic nor underestimated.”
He also said that Honor as a global open system will make independent choices according to the needs of product definition. “Whether it is self-developed or a third-party chip is selected, the purpose is to maintain the best competitiveness of the product.”
Indeed, whether it is a self-developed chip or a third-party chip, its core purpose is to enhance product competitiveness. However, in the current highly competitive smartphone market, self-developed chips have long been the key to enhancing product competitiveness. Whether it is Apple, Samsung, or Huawei, self-developed chips have always been their core competitiveness in the high-end smartphone market.
Only two days after Zhao Ming made the above remarks, Honor established a new chip design subsidiary, Honor Smart Technology, which seems to show Honor’s attitude towards “self-developed chips”.
But chip designing and development is a hard-knock business and the tasks in this industry require a lot of time and heavy investment.
Lei Jun, CEO of Xiaomi, once said that making chips worth 1 billion yuan is just the starting line, and it may take 10 years to achieve results. This is quite true, while success and defeat will lead their own pathways.
Especially for smartphone manufacturers, self-developed chips are more for their own use cases instead of becoming a third-party distributor.
This also determines the success of their self-developed chips. Directly affect the sales of their own products. Even if the chip is successfully developed and the performance is in line with expectations, if the market does not buy it and the shipment volume does not reach a high enough level, it may not even be able to cover the research and development expenses.
When it comes to self-developed chips, Huawei leads the industry. It started developing its own chips and assembled HiSillicon In 2004. This subsidiary mainly focused on industrial chips for supporting network and video applications.
In 2009, Huawei launched a GSM low-end smartphone chip called K3V1, which officially began Huawei’s self-developed smartphone chip journey. Due to technical challenges, Huawei had to call it a pause.
However, in 2014, Huawei unveiled Kirin 910 integrated with the self-developed Balong baseband. The subsequent big sales of Huawei Mate 7 equipped with Kirin 925 really started Huawei’s successful journey in the smartphone industry.
From HiSilicon Semiconductor in 2004 to the success of Huawei Mate 7 in 2014, Huawei has continued to invest in chip research and development for 10 years. The subsequent Kirin 970/980/990 series brought Huawei mobile phones to their peak.
In 2019, after Huawei was sanctioned by the US, Huawei also successfully maintained normal operations with the help of a large number of self-developed chips “spare tires” and related other domestic chips and non-US chips.
Moreover, the United States continued to increase sanctions, restricting the manufacturing of Huawei chips, and the Kirin 9000 series became the last piece of the Kirin segment. And Huawei had to sell Honor.
HiSilicon keeps on researching:
Huawei has not given up on chip research and development. Ren Zhengfei, the founder of Huawei, once said that Huawei HiSilicon will continue to climb Mount Everest.
Xu Zhijun, Huawei’s rotating chairman, also publicly stated: “Hisilicon is only a chip design department for Huawei, not a profitable organization. We have no profit demands for him. As long as we are alive, we will always support it and will attract outstanding talents to join in, laying the foundation and preparing for the future.”
Xiaomi is the second Chinese smartphone company after Huawei to pursue self-developed chips. As early as 2014, Xiaomi established a chip design subsidiary Songuo Electronics, and officially released the surging S1 chip on February 28, 2017, becoming the fourth mobile brand in the world with the ability to develop mobile phone SoC chips at that time.
Unfortunately, this chip has not been successful in the market due to its weak baseband capability (it does not support China Unicom’s 3G and 4G network standards, nor does it support all telecom network standards).
Subsequently, the research and development of The Paper S2 also encountered multiple tape-out failures, which made Xiaomi temporarily give up the research and development of mobile phone SoC, and turned to peripheral chips such as ISP (Paper C1), power management chip (Paper P1).
With the setbacks encountered by Xiaomi in the self-developed chip, OPPO seems to have been mentally prepared when it started the “self-developed chip”.
At the Future Technology Conference in 2019, OPPO founder and CEO Chen Mingyong announced that “in the next three years, 50 billion yuan will be invested in research and development to build a technology moat.”
After that, OPPO officially launched the “Mariana Plan” and established Zheku Technology.
After that, Zheku Technology successively launched the image NPU chip MariSilicon X and the Bluetooth audio SoC chip MariSilicon X. It is rumored that there will be a 4nm mobile phone SoC that will be taped out and a 3nm second-generation mobile phone SoC that is under research.
In the past four years, OPPO’s investment in chip research and development is expected to exceed 10 billion yuan.
On May 12, Oppo shocked everyone by terminating the business of its chip design company Zheku Technology on the grounds of “uncertainty in the global economy and mobile phone market”.
This also made all the efforts of the 3000 Zheku people in the past four years go to waste, which can be described as quite tragic.
OPPO’s closure of Zheku Technology has also aroused concerns about the “self-developed chips” projects of other mobile phone chip manufacturers.
At Xiaomi’s first-quarter financial report meeting on May 24, Xiaomi President Lu Weibing expressed regret for the closure of the chip business by a friend (OPPO), saying that this reflects that it is not easy to make cores, and it is very difficult. Be respectful of every brave attempt.
Vivo has also started to develop its own chips, and its direction of choice is also the image ISP. In September 2021, vivo officially released the self-developed video ISP chip V1 at the X70 series new product launch conference.
It is understood that at that time vivo formed a research and development team of more than 300 people, and after 24 months of research and development.
It finally launched the V1 ISP chip. In the following years, vivo launched V1+ and V2 based on the new AI-ISP architecture.
Vivo is relatively low-key in terms of self-developed chips and currently maintains a smaller scale than other manufacturers. It has the assistance of other chip design service manufacturers. But so far, Vivo’s self-developed chips have not brought enough competitiveness to vivo mobile phones.
Honor will succeed?
Honor and Huawei separated ways in 2020 and afterward, Honor resumed business with all of the industry partners to achieve growth. The company is seeing a sharp increase in market share and revenue.
According to Omdia’s data, the global shipments of Honor smartphones in 2021 were 39.8 million units. The shipments improved by 50.5% to 59.9 million units in 2022, ranking seventh in the global market share.
For this year, Honor CEO predicts that Honor can double the market in 2022. In other words, the shipment target of Honor this year will be close to 120 million units. If Honor’s shipments can really reach this scale, then it should be able to support “self-developed chips”.
Looking at the R&D strength, according to a set of data disclosed by Zhao Ming last year, its R&D investment intensity has already ranked among the top six in the country. Including 7 R&D bases and more than 100 innovation laboratories.
Honor has more than 8,000 R&D personnel, accounting for more than 60% of the company’s R&D personnel. This huge team has achieved more than 300 patent applications per month.
So, yeah, there’s a fair chance for Honor to rank with Huawei in the chip designing business and get success.