When Google made Android, they tried to make it run on every current and upcoming chip architectures, and they did that by creating the Dalvik Virtual Machine, with the vast majority of Android applications being built on it.
There are however some types of apps, like 3D games, that either need a bit of extra performance, or were written in C++ on another platform. In many cases, it’s easier to just port this kind of apps as they are to Android, then it is to rewrite them in another language. That is why Google created the Native Development Kit for developers. However, the problem is these apps can be compiled for only one chip architecture at a time, and they won’t work cross-platform.
In Android 4.0 and later, Google has started adding support for other chip architectures, including MIPS and x86, but that support comes mainly just for Dalvik apps. Intel has tried to solve the native app compatibility problem by emulating the native apps made for ARM on their chips, which causes some performance decrease, but at least most apps work by default.
MIPS on the other hand hasn’t done this yet, and it means they have to work with game developers to convince them to compile their apps for MIPS, too. ARM dominates the mobile market, but MIPS chips are still used in low-end hardware (usually $100 or less), in markets such as China, India and Latin America. For instance, a new 7-inch tablet called Miumiu from Chinese company Ramos will be powered by a MIPS processor. The tablet will have a 1GHz chip, a front camera, a microSD slot for expandable storage, and 4 or 8 GB of internal storage.
MIPS is now working to port Android 4.1 to MIPS-based devices, which should make that low-end hardware work even better thanks to Project Butter:
“We are working aggressively on bringing Jelly Bean to MIPS, and expect that it will be available to our licensees very soon,” said Jen Bernier-Santarini, director of corporation communications at MIPS, in an email.
The Android 4.1 upgrade will be pushed over-the-air or as a download. MIPS also says that their partners are usually very fast with upgrades:
“Historically, our licensees have been able to bring new versions of Android to their devices within a couple of weeks of our making it available to them,” Bernier-Santarini said.
However, even if MIPS is quick to upgrade to Jelly Bean, analysts are not very optimistic about their chances in the market. Experts think that MIPS will struggle to gain any traction against ARM and even Intel, which is still a minor player in the mobile market right now.
In May of this year, MIPS released a new line of processors called Aptiv, with proAptiv being the most exciting. MIPS showed that the proAptiv can be at least as good as ARM’s Cortex A15 at lower clock speeds (think of them as Cortex A15 for low-end devices). But it looks like MIPS’ new designs will arrive in products a year from now, which is later than the time when Cortex A15 will start showing up in products. Considering how behind MIPS are in market share and mind share, releasing their competing chip later than ARM won’t help them too much.
MIPS is unlikely to be very successful in the market on their own, which is why they are a potential acquisition target right now. Hopefully, they’ll get acquired by someone that doesn’t crush what’s left of them, but instead grows the MIPS architecture into a viable alternative to the two dominating architectures right now, ARM and Intel/x86.