Everyone loves an underdog and that’s why little British chip shop ARM has seen so much adulation, not only from its home crowd but from around the tech industry.
From its extremely humble beginnings inside a converted Turkey shed 20 years ago, the firm has grown up to dominate the mobile chip space, striking awe and fear into the hearts of rivals like Santa Clara based Intel.
ARM, which employees just 1700 people (compared with Intel’s approximate 92,000) claims to have its IP in over 95% of the world’s mobile phones and has seen its share prices soar. Over the last year alone, the company saw a 170% increase in share price on the London Stock Exchange, a mean feat in a still shaky economy.
CES 2011 was where ARM really had its day, however, with the British firm dealing two major blows to its rivals and especially Intel, with a tour de force rarely seen from such a small player.
First up was Microsoft’s announcement that it would be designing a new version of Windows to run on the ARM platform, effectively handing ARM tens of millions of dollars in licensing and royalties and dealing Intel a kick in the stomach. Previous versions of Windows have only ever been able to run on the X86 platform (which Intel’s chips are based on). This has meant that full versions of Windows have been restricted to X86 chips from Intel, AMD or tiny Taiwanese firm VIA. It is also, incidentally, the reason many believe Microsoft has had such little success breaking into the ultra mobile market with its popular PC product.
With full Windows now theoretically able to run on mobile phones and very low power tablets, both Google’s Android and Intel’s Atom chip may have met a rather large stumbling block. A “game changer” as the industry would call it.
Next, came the news that NVIDIA had also partnered up with ARM to build its own processors, or CPUs, which would be non X86 based yet would be powerful enough to power regular computers, super computers, and servers. And run Windows, obviously.
“This is the beginning of a new era,” NVIDIA’s CEO Jen-Hsun Huang said at a press conference at CES. “It is the industry, redefined,” he added.
Intel is likely to feel the most pressure form the move, as it may soon feel some real competition in the CPU space it has dominated for so long. ARM, of course, has never made its own chips, but licenses its processor designs out to customers like Marvell, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments, NVIDIA, Samsung, Apple, Nokia, and many, many more.
While mobile phones may have been the firm’s bread and butter until recently, that’s all changing now too, with the emergence of the “internet of things” and ARM moving into spaces one may not expect, like home appliances, toys and car infotainment systems.