ARM: low power is in our DNA

The present and future of the UK's ultimate tech success story

Motorola Xoom

As we're looking at British tech all this week on TechRadar, it makes sense to end the week with one of the biggest successes of recent years – ARM Holdings.

It's responsible for licensing (not manufacturing) the processor tech behind almost all tablets and mobile phones including everything from the humblest 1998 Nokia to the Motorola Xoom and iPad 2 – as well as having involvement in oodles of other markets such as automotive. ARM's partners shipped a scarcely believable six billion processors.

Now a PLC, ARM was formed in 1990 as Advanced RISC Machines, ARM was a joint partnership between Acorn Computer (of the Archimedes and BBC Micro fame), VLSI and some other company called Apple.

iPad 2

ARM-POWERED: The iPad 2 runs the Apple A5 chip. It's made by Apple, but again based on the ARM architecture

The RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computer) chips we use in our iPhones today are direct descendants of the work Acorn did with the BBC Micro and later Archimedes computers – VLSI produced the first ARM silicon in 1985 for the BBC Micro (ARM2). ARM chips then powered the Apple Newton and other handhelds and mobiles.

Tablet growth

We took a few minutes to talk to Ian Drew, executive vice president of marketing at ARM - he's been at the company since 2005 before which he worked for Intel.

So is he pleased at the huge growth in tablets and other mobile devices using ARM-based silicon? "It's always nice when a strategy comes together," he says. "But there's a long way to go yet. There's a lot more we can do. I think this is a start rather than an end. It's very nice seeing TI, Nvidia and Qualcomm and everybody else in the market as we have been talking about it for a few years.

"Low power is very important, and we've had that built into our DNA from day one and I think that's very important in consumer devices and embedded devices right through to TVs, etc. You're now seeing TVs that are ultrathin with no heatsink or anything."

"The plethora of partners are doing about 6 billion [units] last year… that volume, that partnership, that model is really, really important to us." Over 200 companies license technology from ARM.

We asked Drew about the close relationship between ARM and its partners and the fact that ARM is already working on processor designs that we won't see in devices until 2015. "It helps our partnership model because of all that…we're able to influence short, medium and long term. [Our partners] help us with our roadmaps as well. It's a two-way relationship, not just a one way thing."

Competition from Intel

We then asked Drew how he reacts to the competition ARM faces from Intel. "We're an IP company. We work with the OEMs and they do what they think is right. ARM doesn't compete with Intel anyway, it's the ARM partners. Intel has a vertical model, we have a horizontal model. We don't make silicon, Intel doesn't license IP as far as I know."

We revisit the question, something that clearly irks Drew - after all, Intel has been clear in its aim to muscle in on ARM's mobile market while ARM is set to muscle in on Intel's traditional stronghold of Windows."We don't make chips and Intel does. Intel has a different business model to us. If you were really competing for a socket then it's the Nvdias, TIs and Qualcomms and everybody else that really competes with Intel. I know that they would like to say it's ARM but it's really our ecosystem that's the strength of ARM. It's a unifying force."

ARM

WINDOWS ON ARM: Windows 8 is set to run on ARM-based systems

"So it's really the ARM ecosystem partners and our licensees that compete with Intel. Where they take us… that's really up to them. The business model where you can have multiple licensees enables growth."

So did ARM really think the tablet market was going to take off in the way it has? "We saw the explosion in internet everywhere. I spoke to TechRadar a couple of years ago when we talked about browsers being important and plug-ins being important and optimising around the Adobe announcement and what was happening with Mozilla and the Android activity.

"We actually talked about smartbooks at the time – we thought that might take off and then one or two came out with tablets and that just exploded. I think in reality I don't think anybody quite forsaw the tablet explosion, but the internet everywhere was important.

"I also think the diversification opportunities in our business model helped as well because you're allowed to try lots of different things along the spectrum of products. Could I stand there and say I thought about tablets five years ago? No, I don't think anybody did that."

Beyond tablets

But Drew does think that ARM's move into computing will go beyond the mobile and the tablet – and that we'll see plenty of 3G-enabled laptops – dubbed smartbooks - running operating systems such as Google's Chrome OS.

"I think there will be ARM smartbooks, we've seen traction there. I hope there's growth there but again its consumer dependent and we're so far removed from consumers."

Drew also thinks that future technology growth will be governed by connectivity - and that 'internet everywhere is the key unifier. "The 4G LTE stuff, the cables in homes, lots more people in emerging markets having access via mobiles and tablets than they ever did with PCs, there's a whole revolution going on.

"If you look at the growth of the internet, the fastest growth is on smartphones and tablets and that's really important.

"I think this thing is just starting rather than ending. The internet everywhere story is just beginning."

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