The story starts for me back in the 1980s when one of my partners told us we had to buy a machine called a BBC micro and learn how to program it. When someone asked him what can it do, apart from play space invaders, I was told as a “for example”, I could store my wife’s recipes. To view results we would have to plug the machine into a TV! The improbable story of how this machine gave birth to ARM, to smartphones and the mobile revolution is well told in this book.
It is a book, however, for those who know or wish to understand the semiconductor industry; it is written by engineers concerned to explain accurately how designs have come about. For those, such as I, primarily interested in the commercial and economic results, there is much that has to be fleshed out from other sources. Nonetheless the book is a must read for those that wish to understand the industry.
A reviewer has the luxury of being allowed to be selective and I will highlight three things, the creation of the idea by Sophie Wilson and Steve Furber, the leadership of Robin Saxby in determining that the only way to monetize an idea, however excellent, is to ensure that it becomes a standard and the leadership of Warren East who developed ARM into the company that “licenses everybody except Intel”. The authors give full credit to others, notably Qualcomm, Apple and Samsung but the core of the book is the story of ARM.
I shall work backwards. ARM is the first company I decided to invest in without the advice of brokers; I did so because my reading suggested to me that ARM managed itself like a firm of consultants, where I had spent my professional career, with the difference that it was able to charge its “partners” on the basis of a small percentage of their sales. That I told myself was somewhere close to a perfect business model. A consultant goes into clients’ premises with the mindset, “how can I help these guys make money?”. There is no better sales pitch but all he gets for his work is the value of his time.
The man most recently responsible for building that model and an ecosystem of cooperation with everybody, chip designers, EDA companies, manufacturers, OEMs and even in some cases end users was East. He was brought in as a consulting engineer to manage the collaboration that Saxby himself instilled in the company as the key to success. For those who ask, how or why has ARM achieved what it has, the authors answer is this one, collaboration and more collaboration. East became CEO in 2002 and managed the company through the extraordinary period of success created by Steve Jobs’s iPhone.
The authors tell this iPhone story in a most entertaining way, not to be repeated by me, and there is no doubt that the smartphone impelled ARM’s fortunes from a 17% market share in 2007 to 37% in 2014. It was East who built the consulting teams that made this happen.
The authors are never explicit in saying that the ARM product is superior in any way; the reader is left to draw this conclusion for himself. The book explains how Saxby was headhunted in to lead the team of engineers seconded in to the three way joint venture between Acorn, the makers of the BBC micro with which I started, Apple and VSLI. It explains how Saxby allocated enough people to Acorn for a project in which he did not believe, and assigned the rest to Apple. What Saxby needed, as the CEO of a startup, was a quick win to give both credibility and income to pay the bills. He and Apple hoped that this would come from Newton, which failed after two years or so of effort.
The win that Saxby needed came from Nokia. By this time ARM was in version 7, for which one Simon Segars was responsible. The team assigned to sell it to Nokia was lead by Mike Muller. Their presentation impressed; it ticked every box except one, v7 was 32bit and Nokia wanted 16bit. On the plane home Muller and his team dreamed up the concept of Thumb, allowing designers to choose between the two. They changed the product to get the sale, Segars adopted it and ARMv7TDMI (where the T means thumb) was the result. It was sold to Nokia and a succession of other licenses followed. At the end of this chapter the authors rather dryly remark that Saxby had achieved his objective of creating the defacto standard.
So why was the instruction set so good? The authors do not venture an answer but maybe leave clues. Acorn, which produced the BBC micro (which I somehow was supposed to program into a business tool), needed a successor chip. Acorn had large ambitions without resources and Wilson and Furber decided that a 32bit chip was necessary, though none existed. The answer was to design it themselves; so it had to be absolutely simple.
I regard a chip as just a piece of logic and man has known since Aristotle that absolutely simple logic is absolutely compelling. That, for 5 cents, is my answer. The story is well known and well told; it worked first time and did everything it was required to do; it worked even when they forgot to turn on the power, needing only the existing leakage from the I/O (in out) pins.
Then there is the dog that doesn’t bark. Intel in a book about semiconductor companies barely gets a mention. There is a great explanation of how Intel used its “Checkmate” marketing blitz to bury the Motorola 68000 and other rivals, including the pledge to preserve its customers’ software investments, but little other mention except as competitors and an oblique reference to a “we’ve made it so you must buy it” approach. Intel fans and there are many will not be pleased but they would be even less pleased with the truth that Intel has spent at least $10 billion on mobile with nothing to show for it. In short the silence is earned by their performance.
I have one suggestion that a glossary of acronyms would have been helpful. The industry scatters these round like confetti; you have to know terms like DSP and CDMA to understand the story of Qualcomm, for example, but the acronyms are fired at you with such frequency that it is some effort to commit them to memory the first time they occur.
As I have said the book is a must read for anyone who wishes to understand the industry. Its products that we think we all understand, computers, smartphones, mobiles and so forth are becoming saturated and the industry is moving at breakneck speed into disparate systems and ideas which go by the generic name of the Internet of Things. Who will dominate the IOT and with what products is a wide open question but if you want to make a stab at understanding it you can do a lot worse than spend your dollars on this publication.
Mobile Unleashed on Amazon.com