Arik Hesseldahl

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You've Heard About Windows for ARM Chips; Now Meet ARM

For all the attention being paid to the fact that Windows now runs on ARM chips from the likes of Texas Instruments, Qualcomm and Nvidia, few people know much about ARM, the British company whose technology is central to so many of the devices seen at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week.

Shares in ARM have nearly tripled in value from this time a year ago, and the most recent surge occurred in December, when the first reports emerged that Microsoft would do something that previously seemed almost unthinkable: Create a version of Windows designed to run on chips other than the x86 chips from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices. Microsoft confirmed the news two days ago. If 2011 is going to be the year of the tablet, then chances are it’s going to be the year of ARM chips.

The funny thing is, practically every year has been a good year for ARM chips. They’re so widely used already that there’s a good chance you use them, probably several of them, every day. During its most recent quarter, more than 900 million ARM-based chips were sold in mobile devices like smartphones and tablets, while another 600 million were used in devices as varied as TV, toys, cars, alarm clocks and remote controls.

ARM doesn’t build the chips itself; it designs the cores–or central brains–used on those chips. I like to compare it to selling a basic cake recipe. If you’re a baker whose expertise is making really great frosting, why bother dreaming up a brand-new cake recipe when you can use an existing one, and instead use your time and effort to make great frosting? A lot of semiconductor and electronics companies have reached the same conclusion, and paid to license ARM’s recipes for chips, and then built their own custom enhancements around the ARM core.

It’s a pretty popular recipe. The company issued more than 700 licenses as of last year to some 250 chip companies, which then turned around and sold the chips to more than 1,000 manufacturers. ARM estimates that in 2009 four billion chips based on its designs were sold, and that more than 20 billion have been sold in the two decades since the company launched.

Aside from the three ARM-based chips from Texas Instruments, Nvidia and Qualcomm that Microsoft demonstrated running Windows as part of CEO Steve Ballmer’s Jan. 5 keynote presentation at CES, the list of companies using ARM includes Samsung, Broadcom, Toshiba and scores of smaller chip companies.

ARM also has an interesting history. It was founded as a joint venture between Apple and a British outfit called Acorn Computers in 1990. Apple’s interest was to create and develop a chip that would run the Newton, and spur the development of a new-age handheld computer that the Newton was supposed to bring about. (As a few commenters note below, the first ARM chips were used in desktop computers sold primarily in the U.K.) The Newton went nowhere, but the vision for ARM as the chip of choice for mobile computing was right on the money. ARM chips from Motorola (now Freescale) landed in devices from Palm and early handhelds running Windows Mobile. ARM flourished and went public on the London Stock Exchange in 1998. Between 1998 and 2004, Apple sold off its ARM shares for combined proceeds of almost $800 million.

Now having built a considerable lead in the wireless world, ARM-based chips look awfully strong as the battle over tablets shapes up. And beyond that lies higher-end computing opportunities like servers. Some think Intel should be worried. Despite this week’s launch of its Sandy Bridge generation of PC processors, Intel’s shares are trading lower today than they did at the start of the week.

I caught up briefly with ARM Executive Vice President Antonio Viana by phone from CES to talk about the year ahead for ARM.

There’s been a lot of attention around ARM coming into the Windows fold, and everyone knows it from its strength in the wireless devices. How is 2011 shaping up for ARM?

We got our start more than 20 years introducing a chip architecture aimed primarily at the mobile industry. We offered a chip design that’s efficient in the way it consumes power. What happened was the technology moved beyond the cellphone: Into the home, cars, printers. And that trend is continuing. Consumers want features that require a lot more computing power. Some of these devices are handhelds, some aren’t. What makes the ARM architecture central to all that is that industry brings their own secret sauce, their own pieces to the table. The development with Microsoft is just a small microcosm of that.

Are there new licensees coming on?

Our roadmap is constantly evolving, and we’ve developed the architecture for a pretty broad set of use cases. We license to companies like NXP that are relatively simple 8- and 16-bit microcontroller chips that go into industrial equipment, or meters or toys. But because of the network connectivity requirements that are starting to come to those devices, you’re starting to see some of these move to more versatile 32-bit chips and the costs are manageable because developers are so used to working with ARM. Then if you swing way out to the other extreme we just launched our A15 architecture. That’s a multicore design, and it’s finding its way into next-generation servers.

Who’s using that?

Unfortunately, we can’t say yet. A15 was announced last year. We think we’ll start seeing production silicon in the latter half of next year, and there will be samples before that. When you start seeing samples then the partners working with it will start announcing products.

Obviously Intel has its Atom processor, which it has aimed at tablets and handhelds and many other market segments you’re involved in. What kind of competitive threat do you see from Intel?

The competitive threat is certainly there–x86 is incredibly robust and it has the incredible capital resources of Intel behind it. ‘Nuff said. Intel will be successful in various markets they go after. We’d be fools not to acknowledge that. But the question is who’s going to grow more? Who is going to leverage off the market trends right now? Tablets are a wonderful example of that. Right now about 90 percent of all tablets in the marketplace are ARM-powered. At a show like CES you see a lot of things that indicate the market trends. You always have to take a step back and wonder which of the things you see may never happen. But the trends are usually accurate. One of those trends is for always-on, always-connected power-efficient devices. When you look at it that way I’m pretty comfortable with ARM’s position.

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