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4 June, 2020 - 13:25 By Tony Quested

Arm the mighty oak that grew from Acorn

Arm chips

Hermann Hauser doesn’t do trivia. He only calls when he has something significant to say. He called me from Acorn Computers – then quoted on the London Stock Exchange.

“There’s a company spinning out of Acorn called Advanced RISC Machines; it is going to be very, very big,” he told me.

He explained that the startup designed Reduced Instruction Set Computing (RISC) architectures for computer processors configured for various environments.

“It would be good if Business Weekly could look out for it and help the company in any way you can as it finds its feet.”

He was to call specifically about ARM again pre-float in 1998: “Everyone has been trying to get at a slice of ARM through Acorn so ARM is going it alone,” he said, again predicting great things after the IPO. 

ARM, as it was then styled, floated in April 1998 at £5.75p and the stock didn’t move much above that until after November that year when the wider world finally became aware of the potential of the business as a global technology game changer.

But I get ahead of myself: When ARM was officially founded on November 27, 1990 – six months after this newspaper – it launched with 12 founding engineers who had felt constrained having been confined within Acorn. Carve their name with pride: Jamie Urquhart, Mike Muller, Tudor Brown, Lee Smith, John Biggs, Harry Oldham, Dave Howard, Pete Harrod, Harry Meekings, Al Thomas, Andy Merritt, David Seal. Little did they know what they had started.

In 1991 electronics ace Robin Saxby – ex Pye and Motorola among other worthies – was appointed CEO and took the 12 engineers into a new life in a Cambridgeshire barn; into a newly formed venture between Acorn, Apple Computer (now Apple Inc) and VLSI Technology with a modest $1.5 million investment from Acorn.

In his 10 years as CEO Saxby swept the business to a much heralded IPO, a market cap of more than $10 billion and a presence in multiple territories across the globe. It opened in Silicon Valley and Tokyo in 1994.

Sir Robin Saxby with Raspberry Pi’s Eben Upton at a Cambridge Leaders Academy meeting staged by Cambridge Network at Raspberry Pi’s offices.

By the time Japanese giant SoftBank swooped to acquire the Cambridge technology cluster’s crown jewels in the summer of 2016 Arm, led by current CEO Simon Segars, had more than 6,250 employees and was valued at $31.4bn. 

Tudor Brown, then president, told me in November 2011 that the founding directors thought Arm was going under in the crash of 2002 and that fear of failure was never far from the surface until Arm became the global ‘go to’ chip architect for a burgeoning mobile phone industry.

Prescient as ever, Brown predicted in that interview nine years ago that with good fortune, continued excellence and a following wind Arm might be shipping something like “150 billion chips globally by 2020.” The figure has now topped 160 billion – more than 20 times the population of the planet.

From smartphones, tablets and smart TVs, to automotive applications and supercomputers, Arm’s technology touches more than 70 per cent of the world’s population. Pretty much any device contributing to the Internet of Things is powered by Arm’s ubiquitous and unrivalled superchips.

Rene Haas, president, IP Products Group, Arm reported in December that the company had smashed its own record for the number of chips circulated to customers worldwide in the fourth quarter of 2019. Arm silicon partners shipped a record 6.4 billion Arm-based chips, the third record quarter for unit shipments in the past two years.

Arm saw growing demand for embedded intelligence in endpoint devices as demonstrated by the record 4.2 billion Cortex-M processors shipped across the planet.

Image courtesy – Arm

Paul Williamson, vice president and general manager, Client Line of Business, Arm has now revealed that its ever-broadening technology suite is transforming next generation smartphone experiences with huge performance gains.

As just one example, he cites the Arm Ethos-N78 NPU which is delivering unprecedented machine learning capability with a 25 per cent improvement in performance efficiency.

The coronavirus pandemic is driving more people to stay at home and work from home – and onto smartphones as a consequence. As Williamson says: “During this unprecedented global health crisis, we have experienced rapid societal changes in how we interact with and rely on technology to connect, aid, and support us. 

“As a result of this we are increasingly living our lives on our smartphones, which have been essential in helping feed our families through application-based grocery or meal delivery services, as well as virtually seeing our colleagues and loved ones daily. Without question, our Arm-based smartphones are the computing hub of our lives.”

Williamson points out that even before this increased reliance on our smartphones, there was already growing interest among users to explore the limits of what is possible. 

“The combination of these factors with the convergence of 5G and AI, are generating greater demand for more performance and efficiency in the palm of our hands,” he says. 

But more performance and efficiency are only meaningful if your smartphone is optimised to deliver the best experiences on the applications that matter to you most. 

Arm is committed to delivering both massive performance and efficiency gains, combined with overall security and system improvements, to ensure its partner ecosystem can offer a more immersive experience across real-world use cases. This relentless uptick in bleeding-edge technology for compute is thrilling Arm’s massive partner network and global customers alike.

Image courtesy – Arm

The greatest technology company Cambridge has ever produced is in no mood to sit back and admire the landscape; it intends to continually reshape it. 

Arm’s President and Chief Operating Officer, Graham Budd, has been with the company since 1992. He said: “The power of technology to change and enhance our lives is a key principle upon which Arm was founded. It is more relevant than ever in the current environment and is what continues to drive our passion for enabling innovation across our vast computing ecosystem. Our commitment to partnerships since day one has also been essential to Arm’s success, both at a global and local level.”

The 30th Anniversary edition of Business Weekly is available online.

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