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The Ever So Unlikely Tale of How ARM Came To Rule the World 111

pacopico writes "About 24 years ago, a tiny chip company came to life in a Cambridge, England barn. It was called ARM, and it looked quite unlike any other chip company that had come before it. Businessweek has just published something of an oral history on the weird things that took place to let ARM end up dominating the mobile revolution and rivaling Coke and McDonald's as the most prolific consumer product company on the planet. The story also looks at what ARM's new CEO needs to do not to mess things up."
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The Ever So Unlikely Tale of How ARM Came To Rule the World

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  • by mrspoonsi ( 2955715 ) on Monday February 24, 2014 @04:24PM (#46326731)
    And Intel have the advantage there.
  • by spaceyhackerlady ( 462530 ) on Monday February 24, 2014 @04:52PM (#46327043)

    I've always thought ARM was a cool design. Simple, minimalist, sort of a latter-day PDP-11, one of those canonical architectures that just works. Simple chip, not many transistors, low power, good chip for mobile devices. It seems so obvious in retrospect. Especially since that's not what the designers had in mind. They were designing a simple chip because they only had a couple of people and that was all they could afford.

    In one of the later scenes in Micro Men [] there is a whiteboard in the background with the original ARM requirements, right down to the barrel shifter.


  • by BasilBrush ( 643681 ) on Monday February 24, 2014 @04:53PM (#46327075)

    The 6502 was long in the tooth even in those days (dating back at least to the Commodore Pet ca. 1976).
    RISC was flavour of the month in those days, so they set out to create their own RISC based architecture for the next generation of BBC Micro (the Archimedes).

    It was still an odd decision to design their own CPU for the successor to the BBC Micro. A more obvious and less risky move would have been to use a 68000 series CPU as a successor to the 6502.

    I think it's because there were so many Cambridge academics at Acorn. They made a RISC processor because it was an interesting project which was then at the cutting edge of computer science.

  • by cold fjord ( 826450 ) on Monday February 24, 2014 @05:07PM (#46327259)

    "Perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add but when there is no longer anything to take away..." -- Antoine de Saint Exupéry

    A similar point was made about the tight resource constraints of the early Macintosh, and how they created a strong incentive to make use of the toolbox, doing things "the Macintosh way." That paid many dividends over the years.

  • by wonkey_monkey ( 2592601 ) on Monday February 24, 2014 @05:51PM (#46327833) Homepage

    ARM architectures were already in use before ARM the company came into being and went into making mobile processors. They were the CPUs for the Acorn Archimedes [] and Risc PC [].

    Ah, I still remember that heady day at Acorn World in 1996 (I think it was), riding the train back clutching my precious StrongARM (not made by ARM themselves, apparently) upgrade. The unimaginable pow-ah!

    Later upgrades put RAM on the CPU's daughterboard because the bus become the bottleneck.

    Somewhat sadly neglected, my Risc PC now gathers dust in a damp garage, but it made me the aspiring-to-efficiency programmer I am today.

  • by newcastlejon ( 1483695 ) on Monday February 24, 2014 @06:16PM (#46328131) became became the new Acorn Archimedes computer which was used by the British Schools to teach kids how to write computer programmes.

    Speaking as someone who was brought up with BBC Micros, pointy little A3000s and a single majestic "don't you dare touch that" RiscPC, this turned out not to be the case in many schools. Certainly there were often computers aplenty, some running quite good educational programmes but most didn't have anything in the way of programming tools, especially the ones with RiscOS. The Micros were much better as anything you wanted to do on them started with a command line (only a kick in the backside away from learning BASIC) but the later models didn't include any development tools whatever unless you count the hidden command line...

    ...a command line that was so rarely needed they hid it. Acorn were ahead of their time in so many ways; it's a shame they didn't manage to do better outside the UK.

  • by evilviper ( 135110 ) on Monday February 24, 2014 @07:15PM (#46328829) Journal

    There's one simple reason ARM has a strangle-hold on smart phones and tablets... For years, when such devices were being developed, MIPS Technologies was in a shambles. They were reeling from losing SGI, going IPO, and going through the processes of getting acquired by a string of several different companies. They've basically be AWOL this whole time, handing the upstart new market to ARM on a plate.

    MIPS is still competitive. They've got extremely low power processors, multi-core 1GHz+ processors, and they've always been more efficient (higher DMIPS/MHz) than ARM. Despite their virtual absence, they're still used extensively in embedded systems... Your printer, WiFi AP/router, many set-top boxes, etc. They used-to have a dominant lead over ARM, selling something like 2/3rds of all embedded CPUs, but they simply fell apart and ceded the market to the competition. They're even the cheaper option... The first $100 Android ICS tablet found in China was MIPS (not ARM) based, and China's ministry of science keeps developing faster MIPS processors for domestic use, including supercomputers.

    If they had competed, it might be MIPS in every smart phone. Even now, if they get back on-course, they could pose a real challenge to ARM, and driving prices down, and dividing the market, as Intel is trying to do with little success.

    No story that claims to tell how ARM came to dominate is even remotely complete without a good paragraph about how MIPS, their biggest competitor, stopped competing and nearly GAVE them the market.

All seems condemned in the long run to approximate a state akin to Gaussian noise. -- James Martin