How STEVE JOBS saved Apple's bacon with an outstretched ARM

And how a 'surprisingly small' UK company conquered the world


Feature The chip designers at ARM Holdings have turned the computing world upside down, shaken Intel to its core, pulled AMD into its orbit, and broadened its range beyond mobile into every nook and cranny of the digital world, from toys to servers.

But where did this UK wonder company come from? How does it earn its living? And how did Apple help create the company that helped Steve Jobs save Cupertino from annihilation?

At the recent ARM TechCon developers conference, ARM's training and education manager Chris Shore answered those questions and more – such as what "ARM" stands for.

"ARM doesn't stand for anything," he said. "Officially, it stands for nothing. It used to stand for Advanced RISC Machines, which was the company's first name on its foundation. Prior to that it stood for something else – it stood for the Acorn RISC Machine, because the original architecture was actually designed by another company, called Acorn."

However, when ARM joined the NASDAQ and London's FTSE stock exchanges in 1998, the name was officially changed to ARM – which stands for, well, just ARM.

Shore said that he continues to be asked whether ARM makes chips – which, of course, they don't. They create and license designs for a broad range of chips. "If you phone us up and say, 'I'd love to buy a Cortex-A9, how much are they, please?' we can't quote you for a single device or even 10,000 devices – you'll have to go to someone like TI or Freescale or Samsung, who actually license and produce the chips, in order to buy one," he said.

"But we could quote you several tens of milions of dollars for a license to build one of your own, if you wanted to."

He also said that many people are surprised that ARM is a UK company [Some anti-UK prejudice, y'think? — Ed.], seeing as how they play in an industry that's dominated by the US and the Asia-Pacific region. ARM was founded in Cambridge, where its headquarters remain today.

Another misconception that people have about ARM, he said, is that many believe that the company knows all about how its licensees use its designs. "People put those into all kinds of end uses," Shore said. "They go into fridges, toys, wireless baseband modems, network switches, servers, tablets, phones – goodness knows what they go into."

Not only does ARM not track what its partners – Shore's preferred term for licensees – do with their designs, some of those partners wouldn't tell them even if they asked.

"We produce a lot of products in secure marketplaces for things like banking cards," he said, "and our partners in those fields are quite rightly very secretive about what they do. They certainly don't tell their customers that they use our IP, and very often they don't tell us what they do, either. They prefer to keep that very quiet, and keep it to themselves."

From little Acorns...

The ARM architecture didn't originate from ARM, the company. About five or six years before ARM was founded, a Cambridge company called Acorn Computers, which made desktop PCs primarily for the education market, was casting about for a processor for the next generation of their machines. Nothing on the market at the time quite suited their needs, Shore said, so they decided to design their own.

ARM history timeline

From a farmhouse outside Cambridge, UK, to a company worth well over £12bn

"That processor was designed by a very small team of only four engineers," he said, referring to the group led by Sophie Wilson and Steve Furber. "One of whom designed the instruction set, one of whom did the microarchitecture, and two others who assisted with the designing of the supporting chipset." That tiny team produced the processor in 14 months, and it first ran code in Acorn's offices in Cambridge on 26 April, 1985. "And ARM still occupies that office."

That architecture was called the ARM1, for Acorn RISC Machine, and went into a system that became wildly popular in the UK education market. "Everybody my age in the UK used one of those machines at school," he said – Chris is a middle-aged chap – but "they're long gone now."

Acorn is long gone, as well. "It split itself up towards the end of the 1990s, and eventually the final pieces of it were bought by Broadcom and it now forms the chunk of Broadcom's research group." Its legacy, however, lives on in ARM Holdings, which was founded in 1990, headquartered in a farmhouse 10 miles (about 16km) outside of Cambridge.

ARM's first CEO was Robin Saxby, who wasn't the founder of the company, but instead had been headhunted by the founders to run the show. Smart move, seeing as how Saxby came up with the licensing business model that has turned ARM into a global powerhouse.

That business model was born partly out of necessity. With only 12 employees, it didn't have the resources to turn its chips designs into products. "Very neat design," Shore said, "but putting it through a fab and actually turning it into a physical product was a huge risk and a very expensive thing to do, and they simply didn't have the resources to do that."

Those resources, by the way, were provided by ARM's first funders: Apple, Acorn, and VLSI. "It was well-funded, but not lavishly funded," Shore said, and so Saxby came up with the licensing model, which he essentially invented. "It's an industry that ARM has gone on to dominate. We effectively invented it, and for the last over 20 years we've been fortunate enough to dominate it."

Broader topics


Other stories you might like

  • How ICE became a $2.8b domestic surveillance agency
    Your US tax dollars at work

    The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency has spent about $2.8 billion over the past 14 years on a massive surveillance "dragnet" that uses big data and facial-recognition technology to secretly spy on most Americans, according to a report from Georgetown Law's Center on Privacy and Technology.

    The research took two years and included "hundreds" of Freedom of Information Act requests, along with reviews of ICE's contracting and procurement records. It details how ICE surveillance spending jumped from about $71 million annually in 2008 to about $388 million per year as of 2021. The network it has purchased with this $2.8 billion means that "ICE now operates as a domestic surveillance agency" and its methods cross "legal and ethical lines," the report concludes.

    ICE did not respond to The Register's request for comment.

    Continue reading
  • Fully automated AI networks less than 5 years away, reckons Juniper CEO
    You robot kids, get off my LAN

    AI will completely automate the network within five years, Juniper CEO Rami Rahim boasted during the company’s Global Summit this week.

    “I truly believe that just as there is this need today for a self-driving automobile, the future is around a self-driving network where humans literally have to do nothing,” he said. “It's probably weird for people to hear the CEO of a networking company say that… but that's exactly what we should be wishing for.”

    Rahim believes AI-driven automation is the latest phase in computer networking’s evolution, which began with the rise of TCP/IP and the internet, was accelerated by faster and more efficient silicon, and then made manageable by advances in software.

    Continue reading
  • Pictured: Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way
    We speak to scientists involved in historic first snap – and no, this isn't the M87*

    Astronomers have captured a clear image of the gigantic supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy for the first time.

    Sagittarius A*, or Sgr A* for short, is 27,000 light-years from Earth. Scientists knew for a while there was a mysterious object in the constellation of Sagittarius emitting strong radio waves, though it wasn't really discovered until the 1970s. Although astronomers managed to characterize some of the object's properties, experts weren't quite sure what exactly they were looking at.

    Years later, in 2020, the Nobel Prize in physics was awarded to a pair of scientists, who mathematically proved the object must be a supermassive black hole. Now, their work has been experimentally verified in the form of the first-ever snap of Sgr A*, captured by more than 300 researchers working across 80 institutions in the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration. 

    Continue reading
  • Shopping for malware: $260 gets you a password stealer. $90 for a crypto-miner...
    We take a look at low, low subscription prices – not that we want to give anyone any ideas

    A Tor-hidden website dubbed the Eternity Project is offering a toolkit of malware, including ransomware, worms, and – coming soon – distributed denial-of-service programs, at low prices.

    According to researchers at cyber-intelligence outfit Cyble, the Eternity site's operators also have a channel on Telegram, where they provide videos detailing features and functions of the Windows malware. Once bought, it's up to the buyer how victims' computers are infected; we'll leave that to your imagination.

    The Telegram channel has about 500 subscribers, Team Cyble documented this week. Once someone decides to purchase of one or more of Eternity's malware components, they have the option to customize the final binary executable for whatever crimes they want to commit.

    Continue reading
  • Ukrainian crook jailed in US for selling thousands of stolen login credentials
    Touting info on 6,700 compromised systems will get you four years behind bars

    A Ukrainian man has been sentenced to four years in a US federal prison for selling on a dark-web marketplace stolen login credentials for more than 6,700 compromised servers.

    Glib Oleksandr Ivanov-Tolpintsev, 28, was arrested by Polish authorities in Korczowa, Poland, on October 3, 2020, and extradited to America. He pleaded guilty on February 22, and was sentenced on Thursday in a Florida federal district court. The court also ordered Ivanov-Tolpintsev, of Chernivtsi, Ukraine, to forfeit his ill-gotten gains of $82,648 from the credential theft scheme.

    The prosecution's documents [PDF] detail an unnamed, dark-web marketplace on which usernames and passwords along with personal data, including more than 330,000 dates of birth and social security numbers belonging to US residents, were bought and sold illegally.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022