You’d be forgiven for being oblivious to ARM Holdings. After all, the UK-based company “only” supplies Apple – along with three hundred other device makers – with blueprints for dull computational engines that crunch numbers and run your sexy iPhone apps.
In all seriousness, ARM’s new CEO today acknowledged the company isn’t for sale, not to Apple, not to Microsoft, not to anyone. The right course of action, he argues, is to stay independent rather than side with one of its biggest clients and risk loosing others who “rely on the neutrality of our position.” This includes Apple, arguably the most well-known ARM licensee…
ARM with a news release this morning communicated its CEO succession plans: outgoing CEO Warren East is retiring from the company, effective July 1, 2013 and Simon Segars, ARM President and board member since January 2005, has assumed operational responsibility for the company’s crucial IP divisions.
He told The Guardian newspaper:
We have 300 licensees of our technology, we share confidential information with each other and they rely on the neutrality of our position. Being an independent company is the right model.
The paper states that ARM’s blueprints can be found in an astounding 95 percent of the world’s smartphones and “could be embedded in lightbulbs, the concrete of the road you’re driving on, in the bathroom scales,” Segars explains, or “in your refrigerator working out when the milk is going to go off.”
The 45-year-old exec is a long time ARM hero.
Having joined the firm back in 1991 when ARM chips weren’t nearly as much a rage as they’re today, he held several executive roles including EVP Engineering, when he worked on many of the early ARM processors, as well as EVP Worldwide Sales and EVP Business Development.
As you know, ARM technology is the basis for all of Apple’s iDevice processors.
A typical fabless semiconductor makers, ARM doesn’t make the chips itself and instead licenses its technology to semiconductor foundries such as Samsung and TSMC, chip makers like Qualcomm and giants like Apple who after adapting those designs to their needs integrate ARM’s CPU technology into mobile chips.
In the example of Apple’s in-house designed A6 chip that powers the iPhone 5, two ARM Cortex-A15 CPU cores were combined with 1GB of LPDDR2-1066 RAM and three PowerVR SGX 543MP3 graphics processing units licensed from Imagination Technologies, another UK-based fabless semiconductor maker.
The resulting package is being fabbed on Samsung’s 32nm LP HK+MG process.
Matter of fact, Apple has managed to beat both Samsung and Texas Instruments in delivering the world’s first phone powered by ARM’s Cortex A15 CPU platform.
While other chip makers like Qualcomm and Samsung also customize semiconductor blueprints to suit their needs, Apple appears to be incorporating more and more of its own ideas into the engine that powers your iPhone and iPad.
With previous iDevice processors, Apple engineers simply combined the existing off-the-shel parts to connect them efficiently – a process likened to putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle. The A6 package has brought out some major modifications to ARM blueprints.
Code-named Swift, the custom CPU core inside the A6 package is compatible with the ARMv7 platform, but it isn’t a ready-made design like before.
What’s really notable here is Apple’s involvement with ARM and its technology.
ARM’s campus in Cambridge, England, where new CPU designs are being conceived.
The Cupertino firm was an early investor in ARM Holdings in the 1990s, when the British startup was asked to optimize its power efficient processor (originally used in the Acorn Archimedes) for Apple’s Newton handheld project.
ARM (Advanced RISC Machines) is actually a joint venture between Acorn Computers, Apple and VLSI Technology. The company’s original CPU designs were so flexible and forward-thinking that they still form the basis of today’s mobile chips powering smartphones, tablets and all sorts of other existing and upcoming mobile gadgets.
An ARM-based processor in a Hewlett-Packard PSC-1315 printer.
Following an IPO in 1998, Advanced RISC Machines became ARM Holdings.
Apple would unload its ARM shares so by February 1999 its shareholding had fallen to 14.8 percent. It’s safe to say that the original and flexible ARM designs Apple helped create now serve as the pinnacle of the vast majority of mobile devices, which speaks volume.
Unlike desktop processors, these system-on-a-chip (SoC) packages marry the CPU segment to the GPU unit, the memory controller, control logic and sometimes even RAM RAM itself – all onto a single die.
This allows for efficient and power-savvy performance, which is paramount on mobile devices where resources, space – and especially battery technology – are all at premium. This focus on power efficiency could prove paramount in the case of Apple’s rumored smartwatch project.
Because early iWatch prototypes allegedly run iOS and apps, sources privy to the project say energy consumption problems are keeping Apple engineers up at night.
“The goal is to last at least 4-5 days between charges, but the current watch prototypes are apparently only going for a couple days max”, The Verge claimed. And with Samsung looking to beat Apple on app watches, the drive to get the technology right will be crucial.
“We’ve been preparing the watch product for so long,” Lee Young Hee, executive vice president of Samsung’s mobile business, said during an interview in Seoul. “We are working very hard to get ready for it. We are preparing products for the future, and the watch is definitely one of them.”
He also added that “the issue here is who will first commercialize it so consumers can use it meaningfully.”
Samsung-built Google Chromebook notebooks are based on ARM’s CPU designs.
He’s damn right about that.
And as Samsung and Apple hopefully both release their smartwatch products by Christmas, there’s hope their brand power and clout will mainstream wearable technology.
As we grow accustomed to wearing tiny devices on ourselves (and even have them implanted on one’s body), mobile chips will be required to do more, be faster, consume less energy and shrink in size dramatically.
Google’s electronic glasses are also believed to run ARM’s power-efficient CPU designs, though we’ll have to wait until iFixit definitely determines this speculation.
And with ARM basically owning the mobile space to itself, and looking to dominate wearable tech as well, whoever might obtain a controlling stake in the company could have a major leg up against its rivals.
That’s why I’m glad ARM’s new CEO went on the record to re-iterate that the best course of action is to run ARM as an independent entity.