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Archives from TI’s Baseband Glory – Part 1

Archives from TI’s Baseband Glory – Part 1
by Majeed Ahmad on 04-08-2015 at 7:30 pm

In 1992, nearly two years after Britain’s Acorn Computers joined hands with Apple and VLSI to create Advanced RISC Machines or ARM, the semiconductor upstart landed its first major licensing breakthrough. In retrospect, while Apple’s Newton handheld computer had played a key role in creating the ARM venture, Texas Instruments Inc. was the most important early licensee that ARM had snagged.


ARM7 was integrated with TI’s DSP for baseband in Nokia phones

ARM’s founding CEO Robin Saxby later acknowledged that it was really the TI’s license that put ARM on the semiconductor map. TI, the sixth largest chipmaker in the world at that time, was a licensing coup for ARM because it offered an entree into the vast market for embedded control in the automotive industry.

Meanwhile, TI in Europe, who was working closely with Nokia for developing mobile phone chips, saw potential in ARM’s CPU-light product and brought Nokia into the ARM fold. The collaboration between ARM, Nokia and TI eventually led to Thumb-capable ARM7TDMI chip that Nokia used in its 6110 GSM phone introduced in 1994. Nokia wasn’t happy with the code density of the ARM7 processor, so ARM developed Thumb as an alternative instruction set which addressed the code density issue.


Robin Saxby: TI license was a powerful endorsement for ARM technology

The Thumb chip provided low power in a 16-bit architecture that took less space, memory, and power than competing core architectures. The ARM processor core was integrated with TI’s DSP in a baseband solution and was used in Nokia’s 6110 handset. The 6110 mobile phone became hugely successful at the time of GSM’s early take-off. The 6110 design-win gave TI the ability to push its chips into other mobile phones, and that gave ARM the market backing for its processor architecture.


Nokia’s 6110 handset provided enormous boost to ARM and TI

By the late 1990s, ARM had a share of nearly 97 percent in that rapidly growing market. The only two major cellular phone makers that didn’t use ARM cores were Hitachi and Siemens. Eventually, TI became not only ARM’s single largest licensee, but also went on to gain 60 percent market share in mobile phone chips. TI had just about sewn up the mobile handset silicon market by devoting vast engineering resources to Nokia for the development of platforms based on its chips.

It was during this time that TI began to focus on its DSP technology for other electronic products such as modems, PC peripherals and television sets. In 1994, for instance, TI launched a multimedia processor, the first single-chip solution that combined parallel DSP and RISC parts. The confidence that came with the baseband triumph was now branching into other semiconductor markets.

Majeed Ahmad is the author of Nokia’s Smartphone Problem: The End of an Icon?

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