Thank you very much for your encouragement and enthusiasm - very much appreciated!
I can assure to you that we (Purism) are watching the RISC-V ecosystem very carefully as we agree, I think with everyone here, that RISC-V seems at the moment the most promising path to get as free as possible chips at some point in time.
The challenge for us right is now is the actual hardware implementation, i.e. the silicon. Approaches like the ones mentioned here are announcements by companies developing so called IP blocks (really a bad name since IP stands for ‘intellectual property’ but that’s what these are called in the industry for decades now). These design blocks can and need to be licensed from these vendors and need to get integrated with more of such IP blocks, like the CPU cores themselves, more peripherals like DDR controller, USB/PCI controllers etc. So creating a fully functional SOC (System On Chip) design is a pretty huge enterprise. And if this wouldn’t be enough already the next step isn’t any easier, taking this design into a silicon design for tape out and finally doing a silicon run.
All in all this is a many million $$$ enterprise, just to create one SOC design. I am not super familiar with the silicon industry but from the few bits and pieces I know this is in the range of at least $50 million and upwards. And that’s just the investment you would need to put into it. After that you need to recoup that, i.e. make chips and sell them. It is pretty clear that we would not be able to seriously recoup such an investment by Laptop or phone sales, i.e. we would need to start selling silicon, the chips themselves. And this is a totally different story and market than what we address so far.
So I totally share your sentiment and if we would be in a position to fund such a project, rest assured, we would totally do it, right away. But right now? I’m afraid we can’t unless someone can get us in touch with an investor good for $50m++ just for creating the silicon and some $$m more for making and marketing it.
In some other context I also wrote about my view on the RISC-V ecosystem as I see it right now:
The problem with SiFive (and similar companies) is that they want to become the ‘ARM Ltd.’ of the RISC-V world, i.e. they only want to create, sell and license the IP, not make chips. So someone would have to pickup their design (=license =royalties), add a bunch of peripheral IP blocks (=license =royalties) and tape out silicon. The freedom of the added IP blocks is then a really big question. Just because the ISA is open does not mean anything for a chip, sadly.
The situation, as it occurs to me currently, is pretty mixed. There are some very nice really open and free designs, mainly in collaboration with universities, that use them to teach computer architecture and design. They run on big (=expensive) FPGAs. And then there are the commercial players who license stuff from folks like SiFive (and there are a couple others already) and build their stuff on top. These are mostly companies that already have a track record of making specialized silicon for specific purposes, like Western Digital is making controllers for their harddisks and SSDs. They are just replacing the ARM cores with cheaper RISC-V cores and the resulting designs are not free nor are these chips available on the general market.
There are only very few by now that make general purpose RISC-V CPUs and AFAIK all of them are more in the microcontroller range, i.e. no DDR RAM interface, no fast bus systems (be it PCIe or USB) etc. The ‘biggest’ I know so far is still the Kendryte K210 (IIRC) which is a pretty nice AI enhanced controller, pretty open but not usable as a Linux host, more for special purpose applications like an IP camera or smart speaker or such kind of stuff.
But I think this situation will change, I just can not fully predict when. One big driving push is USA trade war with China and cutting off large companies like Huawei (and potentially ZTE and more) from USA IP. So far China spent little development effort into own CPU IP, I guess simply because it would be hard to sell. They also did not have the silicon production capabilities, TSMC is in Taiwan and in mainland China they only have silicon production for larger structure sizes, good for microcontrollers and flash chips but not so much for large complex designs 14nm and down.
Now with really huge companies like Huawei cut off from USA IP they feel a huge need for China made CPUs, IP and silicon. They can not license ARM because this could put them into the same situation in some years again and they need to have their own production to be independent. And that’s exactly what they are massively ramping up now. And if China is ramping up something then it means it is operational within a year or two, not a decade later.
So I expect to see first announcements or at least rumors from China within about a year and a bit and first silicon about a year and a bit later. I am very sure it will happen, it’s just a matter of time.
The next interesting question is, what it will be what they make? They are recognizing more and more that they have a huge market directly at their door step so it may very well be that the first products will go massively into the Chinese and Asian markets, not so much to the west. This could mean that even if there will be great chips there, that we may not get them. And eventually we might not even want to because all code, documentation and support could be Chinese only, including questionable SDKs with blobs all over the place and ignoring free software licenses. In their markets they don’t have to care, but we have to in ours.
It will be interesting to watch how western companies like ARM, Qualcomm etc. will react to this. One reaction we could already observe, ARM is, first time ever, giving away licenses for some parts of their IP for free under certain circumstance. There are quite some possible outcomes from this ‘war’ taking place right now and most are not very favorable. Let’s hope openness, freedom and good terms prevail.