Apple has redefined three industries within a decade: media player with the iPod, mobile handset with the iPhone and portable computers with the iPad. If there is anything common in these three game-changing product development stories other than Apple, it’s the ARM footprint. Even now the technology media is abuzz with speculation that Apple could eventually replace Intel’s x86 chips in Macs with ARM SoCs.
In retrospect, Apple’s association with ARM goes far beyond the iPod/iPhone/iPad success stories, right up to the foundation of the British technology icon. In many ways, it was Apple who had put ARM on the semiconductor industry map. It’s a fascinating tale of technology collaboration that was born out of specific design needs of the Cupertino, California–based computer firm.
Search for a specialized processor for Newton led to the creation of ARM
During the late 1980s, Apple was looking for a suitable mobile processor for its upcoming PDA that came to be known to the world as Newton. Here, Apple’s fab partner VLSI Technology led the computer maker to a small firm in Cambridge, England that owned a low-power and high-efficiency processor. Acorn Computers, also a PC maker, had developed its own processor because it didn’t want to buy expensive PC processors from Intel or Motorola.
However, Acorn didn’t have deep pockets to develop a complex and powerful processor, so it ended up with a RISC-based device carrying a simple structure. They called it Acorn RISC Machine or ARM. In VLSI, which manufactured these PC processors for Acorn, it was John Stockton who had told the Newton team about the ARM processor. Eventually, Apple’s chief scientist Larry Tessler made the case for using ARM processors in the Newton PDA.
John Stockton showed the Newton design team way to ARM processors
The Birth of ARM
Now Apple wanted to make some tweaks in the original ARM processor to suit the needs of Newton and Acorn didn’t have the budget to carry out these changes on its own. In fall 1990, in a span of six weeks, a joint venture was negotiated between Apple, VLSI Technology and Acorn. Acorn would provide the manpower, Apple Computers would bring the financial support and VLSI Technology would share the design tools technology.
On November 27, 1990, Acorn joined hands with Apple and VLSI to jointly create a new company that changed its name from “Acorn RISC Machine” to “Advanced RISC Machine.” Robin Saxby officially launched Advanced RISC Machines or ARM with the goal to address and attack the growing market for low-cost, low-power, high-performance 32-bit RISC chips. Apple, who had persuaded Acorn to make the ARM platform independent, took a 43 percent stake in the new company for US$3 million.
Apple began using the first generation of mobile ARM chips in its Newton Message Pad launched the 1993. In addition to supplying chips to Apple and Acorn, ARM began licensing the rights to manufacture its chip designs as well as offering an architectural license to technology firms interested in incorporating and modifying ARM’s core technologies into their custom chip designs. ARM quickly became the de facto standard for embedded and mobile chip designs. The rest, as they say, is history.
As a small footnote, it’d be worthwhile to mention that ARM returned the favor by providing a much-needed stream of cash to Apple during its bleak days in the late 1990s. From 1998 to 2003, Apple sold its shares in ARM for an estimated US$1.1 billion, the cash infusion that helped Jobs to finance new projects and rebuild the beleaguered computer maker. In the hindsight, Apple’s investment in ARM went on to pay huge dividends as the Cupertino, California–based technology company branched out into portable devices like the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad.
Majeed Ahmad is author of books Smartphone: Mobile Revolution at the Crossroads of Communications, Computing and Consumer Electronicsand The Next Web of 50 Billion Devices: Mobile Internet’s Past, Present and Future.