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Microsoft might be infringing on Intel's patents with Windows on ARM's x86 emulation

Yesterday, Intel published a blog post celebrating the 40th birthday of the 8086, which was the first x86 processor. But after the company boasted about the innovations that it's brought to the platform over the last four decades, it made what sounds like a veiled threat toward anyone emulating its technology without its permission.

Intel carefully protects its x86 innovations, and we do not widely license others to use them. Over the past 30 years, Intel has vigilantly enforced its intellectual property rights against infringement by third-party microprocessors. One of the earliest examples, was Intel’s enforcement of its seminal “Crawford ’338 Patent.” In the early days of our microprocessor business, Intel needed to enforce its patent rights against various companies including United Microelectronics Corporation, Advanced Micro Devices, Cyrix Corporation, Chips and Technologies, Via Technologies, and, most recently, Transmeta Corporation. Enforcement actions have been unnecessary in recent years because other companies have respected Intel’s intellectual property rights.

However, there have been reports that some companies may try to emulate Intel’s proprietary x86 ISA without Intel’s authorization. Emulation is not a new technology, and Transmeta was notably the last company to claim to have produced a compatible x86 processor using emulation (“code morphing”) techniques. Intel enforced patents relating to SIMD instruction set enhancements against Transmeta’s x86 implementation even though it used emulation. In any event, Transmeta was not commercially successful, and it exited the microprocessor business 10 years ago.

It goes on to say that "Intel welcomes lawful competition", but "we do not welcome unlawful infringement of our patents, and we fully expect other companies to continue to respect Intel’s intellectual property rights."

While Microsoft and Qualcomm aren't mentioned specifically by name, their Windows on ARM efforts are the most notable example of x86 emulation that's happening right now. With the project, Microsoft plans to bring full desktop applications to PCs that use ARM processors.

What's interesting is that if the statement is aimed at the two companies, as it appears to be, it means that Microsoft went so deep into developing the x86 emulation technology with Qualcomm without ever consulting Intel. It seems like quite the oversight if such a major part of Windows is built on top of proprietary technology from a third-party company.

Mary Jo Foley of ZDNet reached out to Intel to ask if the statement at Microsoft and Qualcomm, and received the following statement from Intel's executive vice president and general counsel Steve Rodgers:

Intel respects intellectual property rights and we expect others to do the same. x86 technology is both proprietary and central to our business, and we're concerned any time it appears that others may be copying it inappropriately. We will thoroughly evaluate any products that claim to emulate x86 technology, and vigorously enforce our intellectual property rights if we believe they are infringed.

Last week, Microsoft announced its 'Always Connected Windows 10 Mobile PCs' at Computex, and that the first ones will come from ASUS, HP, and Lenovo. With products ready to come to market within months, and the original announcement being last year, it's unclear why Intel would wait until now to say something, or why it would do so through a blog post, rather than taking action.

Microsoft and Qualcomm haven't issued any statements regarding this.

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