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The International ARM Race: Rise Of The Chinese SoC

China Needs Android, Not Google

Android is central to Chinese success in the mobile marketplace. Independent hardware vendors (IHVs) utilizing Chinese SoCs for their tablets tend to use Google’s OS because it's cost-free and open-source. Android is what allows $100 to $200 devices to work just as well as $600 flagship devices. Some buyers of China-made tablets may brag that their budget devices can do everything the more premium products can do. In some ways, they are right. But the story isn’t that simple. In many cases, "cheap" can also be code for "unsupported and closed-source."

And therein lies the problem. While Android (specifically, the Android Open Source Project) is open source, many of the Chinese SoC vendors aren’t true to the initiative’s spirit. There's been some valid criticism aimed at some of these companies and the ways in which they enjoy the benefits of being part of the Android experience, yet don't actually give much back in return. Companies like Rockchip, MediaTek. and Allwinner are unapologetically closed source when it comes to their kernels, making it difficult for owners of products based on those platforms to move beyond the version of Android that shipped with their devices. Furthermore, this also makes it nearly impossible for these devices to properly utilize aftermarket ROMs like CyanogenMod, Paranoid Android, and AOKP.

There have been some strides made on the Rockchip front; for instance, a Spanish tablet manufacturer opened up the source for its kernel. In turn, a beta version of Ubuntu surfaced for the SoC. Ithas since grown up, settled down, and now goes by the unfortunate name of PicUntu. The distribution has been making the rounds in the HDMI media stick communities, and is generally well-regarded. While it doesn't include full hardware acceleration, it's full-featured in almost every other aspect.

Still, that's Linux. Most RK3066 owners are stuck using older versions of Android, and the situation doesn't seem like it's going to change anytime soon. Meanwhile, the more modern quad-core RK3188 has yet to see a Linux variant. And that's even more disappointing since, in some cases, RK3188 devices ship with 2 GB of RAM and are far more powerful than the older RK3066.

For these reasons, Chinese SoCs and the devices they power tend to be somewhat devalued compared with their more prominently-branded equivalents from Qualcomm, Samsung, and Nvidia. Even though those familiar names and their partners do sometimes engage in closed-source, locked-down shenanigans, alternatives to their preinstalled versions of Android often do exist. XDA has countless forums for devices with Snapdragon, Exynos, and Tegra SoCs. Yet, the community push for China-based SoCs just isn't as effective. Most owners are left to "alternative solutions" on smaller forums, many of which lack support or are simply administered unprofessionally.

Also worrying, some of these Chinese companies are forking Android. They're doing it to avoid having to appease Google's Open Handset Alliance (OHA), and to ship their own software storefronts instead of Google Play.

Right now, we're seeing two major Android forks coming out of China: LeWa OS and the controversial Aliyun OS, the latter of which has been caught offering pirated versions of for-sale Android games, which could become a big problem down the road.

To make things worse, other China-based Android variants are not being particularly friendly with the open-source community: Flyme and MIUI. Flyme is available on Meizu's range of phones, while MIUI can be found on phones from Xiaomi or as a ROM for other devices. Both skin the OS in much the same way as HTC's Sense or Samsung's TouchWiz. The issue lies in the fact that both of these Chinese operating systems are closed source, which flies in the face of Android's AOSP GPL license. It also sets a worrying precedent that further releases may remain that way, again locking users into non-upgradable software experiences.

That trend probably worries AOSP fans and ROM developers, particularly in regard to how it may affect future China-based SoCs and devices.

Now, let's take a closer look at some of China's homegrown SoCs, starting with Rockchip.

  • blackmagnum
    God bless, America. If you can't beat them, join them!
    Reply
  • jossrik
    It'll be interesting to see where manufacturing goes in the future, maybe back to EU or even Africa somewhere maybe. Right now it's hard to see things get cheaper than China, but of course, eventually it will happen. I hear Apple is gonna buy China.
    Reply
  • jjjjkkkk
    MediaTek is Taiwanese not Chinese
    remove it from the list
    Reply
  • Draven35
    The company's first commercial foray using this technology came in 1983 with the 16-bit Acorn RISC Machine, or ARM. It ran one of the first true multitasking operating systems in production, RISC OS,

    Except, the first silicon didn't exist until 1985, and the machine running RISC OS didn't exist until 1987.
    Reply
  • blubbey
    God bless, America. If you can't beat them, join them!

    ARM are British though..... (unless I'm missing something which is entirely possible).
    Reply
  • virtualban
    The Chinese may leech off and profit from current available designs, and close-source their 'innovations', but I wonder what will they do when the rest of the world will reverse engineer and use any progress they make without having to answer to the Chinese companies (duh).
    Reply
  • icemunk
    The writer seems to think the RK3288 is a 2015 SOC, however it has been out since April, and many devices are available with it, lots of $200 tablets with 2000X1500 resolution, and a bunch of TV boxes as well for $100. It's an excellent chip, achieving around 40,000 antutu scores. 2015 I'm sure we'll see a brand-new Rockchip, but the RK3288 has been out for some time.
    Reply
  • MediaTek is Taiwanese not Chinese
    remove it from the list

    Since when is Taiwanese not Chinese? Read a book.
    Reply
  • oxiide
    MediaTek is Taiwanese not Chinese
    remove it from the list

    Since when is Taiwanese not Chinese? Read a book.
    Hopefully your books mention that the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the People's Republic of China (mainland China) are two distinct and, for the most part, recognized nations.

    MediaTek is indeed a Taiwanese company, though I'd rather they just specify that in the article rather than being told to remove it over a technicality. It's still relevant to the topic regardless of where they are headquartered.
    Reply
  • amk-aka-Phantom
    Thanks to the author for pointing out the closed-source BS, this makes me hate Mediatek. Others are irrelevant (luckily) so far, don't see their chips in any reasonable devices.
    Reply