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Huawei is emulating Apple in developing the processors that power its latest smartphones, a breakthrough that will help the Chinese company reduce its reliance on foreign technology as it faces U.S. sanctions.

An analysis of the main chip inside the Mate 60 Pro smartphone, launched late last month and immediately sold out, shows Huawei has joined an elite group of big tech companies that can design their own semiconductors.

Four of the eight central processing units in the Mate 60 Pro’s “system on a chip” (SoC) rely entirely on Arm’s designs. The British company’s chip architecture powers 99% of smartphones.

The other four CPUs are based on Arm but use Huawei’s own designs and adaptations, according to three people familiar with Mate development and Chinese technology testing firm Geekerwan, which has closely studied the main chip.

Huawei has been struggling since 2019 under sanctions aimed at cutting off its access to advanced chips, equipment and software from the United States for making 5G smartphones, forcing it to shift to selling 4G products and focus on the domestic market .

While Huawei still licenses Arm’s basic design, its own HiSilicon chip design business has refined it, building its own processor core on top of the Mate’s Kirin 9000S SoC. Analysts and industry insiders say this will give it the flexibility needed to produce high-end smartphones despite restrictions from U.S. export controls.

Huawei’s smartphone chips

Kirin 9000S is also equipped with a graphics processing unit and a neural processing unit developed by HiSilicon. The predecessor Kirin 9000 SoC relied entirely on Arm for its CPU and GPU.

Developments suggest that Huawei is pursuing a strategy similar to Apple’s Silicon plan. For more than a decade, Apple has refined Arm’s basic architecture to give its iPhones and Macs a competitive edge in performance.

The complexity, huge costs and scarce engineering resources of semiconductor development mean that only a few companies can take this approach.

Apple and Huawei’s smartphone sales market share in China

Dylan Patel, chief analyst at consulting firm SemiAnalysis, said Huawei may have achieved a breakthrough that allows it to “have local design instead of being overly dependent on foreign countries.”

Counterpoint Research analyst Brady Wang said other benefits for Huawei include lower patent licensing costs and the opportunity to differentiate its products from those of rivals that use off-the-shelf chips.

According to people with direct knowledge of Huawei’s development, Huawei is able to produce its own mobile phone processors by using CPU core designs originally used in its data center servers. The strategy is similar to Apple’s move to turn iPhone processors into chips that power its Mac computers, but in the opposite direction.

“No one has done this before,” Wang said of Huawei’s server-to-phone innovation.

“Huawei is calling on as many internal resources as possible to achieve results to reduce reliance on imported technology,” said a semiconductor analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation.

However, the company still faces challenges in producing cutting-edge chips with the latest equipment due to U.S. restrictions on Huawei’s suppliers. The Biden administration said earlier this month it was seeking details about the SoCs inside Huawei’s new phones.

Research group TechInsights reported earlier this month that the Mate 60 Pro’s main chip is manufactured by China’s Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation at the 7-nanometer miniaturization node, two generations behind the most advanced smartphone chip manufacturing lines.

Huawei did not respond to a request for comment. Arm declined to comment.

The Mate 60 Pro has been touted as proof of Huawei’s ability to innovate to circumvent U.S. sanctions, but analysts say the phone’s performance suggests its progress has been hampered by export controls.

Multiple test teams, including Geekerwan’s, have found that Huawei’s semiconductor capabilities lag one to two years behind those produced by leading mobile chip maker Qualcomm of the United States. According to measurements, Huawei’s chips consume more power than competitors’ chips and can cause phones to heat up.

One person familiar with the company’s smartphone chip design said: “(We) can see from the teardown that Huawei has successfully replaced the most dangerous components that are subject to export controls or vulnerable to export controls with local products and even in-house products. “These efforts deserve applause, but they are not enough to declare victory.”

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