The big Apple iProduct announcement was today so I thought it would be a good time to premier a draft of the Apple chapter in our upcoming book. Try as I might I was unable to get one of the 7,000 tickets to the live event (it was like getting a Willy Wonka golden ticket!) so I live streamed it from my iPhone like millions of other people. It ran over two hours but is definitely worth your time, especially if you like the band OneRepublic.
The Apple chapter starts with Steve Jobs 2.0 (his return to Apple) and chronicles the rise of the iProducts from start to finish. This is a no holds barred account of how Apple redefined mobile and became the most powerful fabless semiconductor company in the world, absolutely.
SemiWiki Book Download:A Brief History of Apple Mobile Devices and SoCs
The Apple chapter is in wiki form so please excuse the formatting. This advanced look is exclusive to SemiWiki members. If you are not currently a member please join as my guest: https://www.legacy.semiwiki.com/forum/register.php
If you have questions, comments, and/or corrections post them in the discussion section of the wiki. The following is the prologue of the book. Enjoy!
The Origin and Evolution of ARM Processors in Our Devices
How does a company go from a crazy idea a couple of engineers had for designing a processor from scratch to power a “business computer,” to being the maker of the family of processor cores at the heart of roughly 95% of the world’s mobile phones today?
At the dawn of the ARM architecture, the project was a tightly kept secret in a few technologist’s hands at Acorn Computer Group. It was so secret that Olivetti, a firm at that time in the process of shifting its fortunes from typewriters to computers, was not aware of the existence of the chip design or its development team until after an investment stake in Acorn became final.
What Acorn had was a processor quite unlike any other of the period – but that was far from all. They established a reduced instruction set for machine-level programming most users never see, software development tools for using it, and the concept of a customized processor core for independent fabrication.
Challenging the Mainstream
Given that breakthrough, one would think Acorn could have taken the world by storm right out of the gate. However, in the mid to late 1980s, the scene was far from ready for an alternative to the mainstream chips.
Intel was building its empire on the processors that throbbed inside nearly every personal computer. Semiconductors came from Silicon Valley, designed in big, expensive buildings – not in rustic barns near Cambridge, UK. Parts were typically complex, huge, costly, and hot. Being the fastest gun in town, and staying that way, was priority number one under Moore’s Law.
The source of popular software was Redmond, Washington, and anything incompatible with Microsoft was unable to survive for long. A thriving flock of personal computer companies found out the hard way that PC compatibility was the only thing people cared about, or asked for. If a processor could not run MS-DOS, Lotus 1-2-3, Word Perfect, and Turbo Pascal, what good was it?
Those forces left even the now mighty Apple dangerously near bankruptcy at one point after initial success with the Apple II. The comeback was underway; their latest innovation was the Macintosh, built on a Motorola processor and a graphical user interface (GUI) that introduced the mouse to millions of people. It was just different enough to hang on pitted against a wide row of function keys and never-ending combinations of ALT, CRTL, and SHIFT codes on the other side.
Coincidentally, those two companies – Apple and Motorola – running on separate tracks in the early 1990s paved the way for ARM to rise from the relative obscurity and limited volumes of Acorn.
Research on computing alternatives had been underway at Apple for some time, spawned in part by a leadership change from Steve Jobs rev 1.0 to John Sculley. The objective: break off from the desktop and into handheld platforms then known by the clunky category name of “personal digital assistant.” The first Apple PDA project was Newton, and along the way, they reached out to Acorn for an ARM core.
Meanwhile, Motorola led the way to the height of the analog cellular telephone sensation. As phones evolved from analog to digital, one key to reducing size and bill of materials cost became digital signal processing (DSP). In a twist of fate, seeking to diversify business and not compete with customers for capacity, Motorola did not leverage their own semiconductor parts. Instead, as the digital handset revolution took shape they opted mostly for popular DSP chips from Texas Instruments – as had Ericsson, Nokia, and others.
More Than a Cool Idea
Those Apple and Motorola tracks may seem completely separate, but they collided head on in digital mobile devices. Microprocessors were too big and power hungry, and microcontrollers were too slow. Code such as multitasking operating systems, wireless communication stacks, and handwriting recognition – once thought to be the killer application for PDAs – sucked the life out of most CPU architectures.
A dire need was developing for a more optimized but fast processor core, and better integration with lower power DSP capability for handling wireless signals.
With a complex instruction set, or CISC, changing anything to improve performance risked mangling instructions, and breaking software. Motorola would enjoy early success in PDAs with their scaled-down part, the MC68328 DragonBall, winning designs such as the original Palm Pilot. Intel and their X86-compatible ecosystem had initial device wins at IBM, Research In Motion, and Nokia. Both CISC processors found themselves displaced as alternatives emerged.
Long before Steve Jobs rev 2.0 returned and eventually defined the post-PC era, Apple saw greater potential for the ARM architecture. With the Acorn development team and their fab partner VLSI Technology, Apple helped form a joint venture in 1990: Advanced RISC Machines, Ltd. One brand was born, and another remade, ushering in sweeping change in mobile device leadership.
If ARM had been just another company with a cool idea for an embedded processor core, there would not be much more to add to the history – one that others have visited numerous times. Covering ARM from its stealthy origins as a few determined, creative people inside Acorn to today with over 50 billion processor cores shipped and counting is inspiring, but not the whole story.
In this book, we explore the origin story of ARM from an industry perspective, and the evolution of its processor technology that unleashed mobile devices.
Once the Acorn and Apple teams joined forces, sharing their early parallel experience that we open this book with, the bond between mobile devices and the ARM architecture formed. That bond is now nearly unassailable despite massive investments from competitors, mostly because its basis is more than a semiconductor company designing and selling parts to a segment of customers.
An entire ecosystem, in many ways more diverse and more powerful than the impressive PC community, has developed around the combination of mobile and ARM. It reaches across the entire supply chain, from EDA firms, foundries, semiconductor companies, software companies, mobile device manufacturers, carriers, application developers, and makers, who have rather recently joined in.
We will look at not just the processors and phones and tablets and other devices, but the business of mobile as it evolved along the lines drawn by each successive generation of ARM technology. We will have insights on the obvious names – Apple, Google, Qualcomm, and Samsung among them – and some not so prominent ones that played important roles building up to today. Perhaps most fun, we will wrap up with an analysis on where we see all this going in the future.
A journey of billions of processors and beyond begins with a single step. Now, we go back to the beginning of ARM, which on the surface had nothing to do with mobile but everything to do with creating a better processor core.