A Brief History of ARM: Part 1

Chinese version 中文版:ARM简史:第一部分

One of the things I have noticed about ARM over the last year that I have been working here is people having a great interest in ARM’s history. After a quick Google search and multiple open tabs I realized that there was much debate and comments on the actual history of ARM.

You can easily attain the timeline of events of ARM as a company,  but it doesn’t really tell the story of how ARM came into existence and how it rose to the top of its respected industry. It does however give you a full timeline of licensees of ARM and the key moments in the company's history.  Please join in the debate in the comment section if you feel there is more to add or possible topics you would like to see researched in further blog entries. Also don’t be afraid to comment with corrections or extra information from the era of 1980-1997 of which this Part 1 blog is based.

This blog will be posted over two entries – The History of ARM: Part 1 and The History of ARM: Part 2.

The Beginning: Acorn Computers Ltd

Any British person the age of 30 will most likely remember Acorn Computers Ltd and the extremely popular BBC Micro (launched with a 6502 processor in 1981). The background of Acorn is a very interesting story in itself (and probably deserves its own blog), set in the booming computer industry in the 1980’s. The founders of Acorn Computers Ltd were Christopher Curry and Herman Hauser. Chris Curry was known for working very closely with Clive Sinclair of Sinclair Radionics Ltd for over 13 years. After some financial trouble Sinclair sought government help, but when he lost full control of Sinclair Radionics he started a new venture called Science of Cambridge Ltd or later known as Sinclair Research Ltd. Chris Curry was one of the main people in the new venture, but after a disagreement with Sinclair on the direction of the company, Curry decided to leave Sinclair Computers Ltd.

Curry soon partnered with Herman Hauser, an Austrian PHD of Physics who had studied English in Cambridge at the age of 15 and liked it so much, returned for his PHD. Together they set up CPU Ltd which stood for Cambridge Processing Unit which had such products as microprocessor controllers for fruit machines which could stop crafty hackers from getting big pay outs from the machine. They launched Acorn Computers as the trading name of CPU to keep the two ventures separate. Apparently the reasoning behind the naming of Acorn was to be ahead of Apple computers in the telephone directory!

Fast forward a few years and they landed a fantastic opportunity to produce the BBC Micro, a government initiative to put a computer in every classroom in Britain. Sophie Wilson, and Steve Furber were two talented computer scientists from the University of Cambridge who were given the wonderful task of coming up with the microprocessor design for Acorn’s own 32 bit processor – with little to no resources. Therefore the design had to be good, but simple – Sophie developed the instruction set for the ARM1 and Steve worked on the chip design. The first ever ARM design was created on 808 lines of Basic and citing a quote from Sophie from a telegraph interview; ‘We accomplished this by think about things very. Very carefully beforehand’. Development on the Acorn RISC Machine didn't start until some time around late 1983 or early 1984. The first chip was delivered to Acorn (then in the building we now know as ARM2) on 26th April 1985. The 30th birthday of the architecture is this year! The Acorn Archimedes which was released in 1987, was the first RISC based home computer.

If there is enough interest I will do a full blog on the history of Acorn Computers Ltd but for now you can find a great TV movie by the BBC called Micro Men  – watch out for the Sophie Wilson cameo appearance! (Credit to the BBC - Source here for British iPlayer users)

Micro Men - A BBC Movie

ARM is founded.

ARM back then stood for ‘Advanced RISC Machines’ but to answer the age old question asked by many people these days, it actually doesn’t stand for anything – as the machines they were named after are long but outdated, ARM continued with its name – which funnily enough, means nothing! It does have a cool logo though!


ARM Logo (2015)

The company was founded in November 1990 as Advanced RISC Machines Ltd and structured as a joint venture between Acorn Computers, Apple Computer (now Apple Inc.) and VLSI Technology. The reason for this was because Apple wanted to use ARM technology but didn’t want to base a product on Acorn IP – who, at the time were considered a competitor. Apple invested the cash, VLSI Technology provided the tools, and Acorn provided the 12 engineers and with that ARM was born, and its luxury office in Cambridge – A barn!

Fig_ARM_Headquarters.jpgARM headquarters

In an earlier venture, Hermann Hauser had also created the Cambridge Processor Unit or CPU. While at Motorola, Robin Saxby supplied chips to Hermann at CPU. Robin was interviewed and offered the job as CEO around 1991. In 1993 the Apple Newton was launched on ARM architecture. For anyone that has ever used an Apple Newton you will know it wasn't the best piece of technology, as unfortunately Apple over reached for the technology that was available for them at the time - the Newton has flaws which lowered its usability vastly. Due to these factors ARM realized they could not sustain success on single products, and Sir Robin introduced the IP business model which wasn’t common at the time. The ARM processor was licensed to many semiconductor companies for an upfront license fee and then royalties on production silicon. This made ARM a partner to all these companies, effectively trying to speed up their time to market as it benefited both ARM and its partners. For me personally, this model was one that was never taught to us in school, and doesn’t really show its head in the business world much, but it creates a fantastic model of using ARM architecture in a large ecosystem – which effectively helps everyone in the industry towards a common goal; creating and producing cutting edge technology.

TI, ARM7, and Nokia

The crucial break for ARM came in 1993 with Texas Instruments (TI). This was the break that gave ARM credibility and proved the successful viability of the company’s novel licensing business model. The deal drove ARM to formalize their licensing business model and also drove them to make more cost-effective products. Such deals with Samsung and Sharp proved networking within the industry was crucial in infecting enthusiastic support for ARM’s products and in gaining new licensing deals. These licensing deals also led to new opportunities for the development of the RISC architecture. ARM’s relatively small size and dynamic culture gave it a response-time advantage in product development. ARM’s big break came in 1994, during the mobile revolution when realistic small mobile devices were a reality. The stars aligned and ARM was in the right place at the right time. Nokia were advised to use ARM based system design from TI for their upcoming GSM mobile phone. Due to memory concerns Nokia were against using ARM because of overall system cost to produce. This led to ARM creating a custom 16 bit per instruction set that lowered the memory demands, and this was the design that was licensed by TI and sold to Nokia. The first ARM powered GSM phone was the Nokia6110 and this was a massive success. The ARM7 became the flagship mobile design for ARM and has since been used by over 165 licensees and has produced over 10 Billion chips since 1994.

mtnok61g.jpgNokia 6110 - the first ARM powered GSM phone (You may remember playing hours of the game snake!)

Going Public

By the end of 1997, ARM had grown to become a £26.6m private business with £2.9m net income and the time had come to float the company. Although the company had been preparing to float for three years, the tech sector was in a bubble at the time and everyone involved was very apprehensive but felt it was the right move for the company to capitalize on the massive investment in the tech sector of the time.

On April 17th, 1998, ARM Holdings PLC completed a joint listing on the London Stock Exchange and NASDAQwith an IPO at £5.75. The reason for the joint listing was twofold. First, NASDAQ was the market through which ARM believed it would gain the sort of valuation it deserved in the tech bubble of the time which was mainly based out of the states. Second, the two major shareholders of ARM were American and English, and ARM wished to allow existing Acorn shareholders in the UK to have continued involvement. ARM going public caused the stock to soar and turned the small British semiconductor design company into a Billion Dollar company in a matter of months!

mo_052008f.jpgARM Holdings was publicly listed in early 1998


Please continue the ARM journey with A Brief History of ARM: Part 2 (1997-2015). Please leave comments and feedback for items you would like to see discussed!

Credit to Markus Levy, Convergence Promotions. For more see here for more detailed information on the technologies used during those early years

Credit also to the internal help received by many during the writing of this blog.