Why ARM is still the tech giant you don't really know

11th Apr 2013 | 10:30

Why ARM is still the tech giant you don't really know

EVP Ian Drew talks tablets, wearable tech and consumer brands

Given that the number of ARM-based chips made in 2012 outnumbered the population of Earth several times over, it's fair to suggest that Ian Drew is a man whose finger is on the tech pulse.

A former Intel-man, Drew is currently in charge of marketing and business development, and is a key figure in the British company's strategy, making him an ideal person to ask just why such an influential technology company still remains so far from consumer minds.

For all its so-far brilliant model - letting partners like Samsung, Qualcomm and Microsoft hog the limelight - ARM is aware that there are big benefits to getting a little more credit than they currently do.

"Having been at ARM for eight years I can tell you that, when I first joined everyone we talked to went 'ARM? Who are you?'. Now, the semiconductor market all know us very well and, in the next step outside of that, in software, content and OEMS we're reasonably well known," said Drew

"The bit that we are not well known it as a consumer brand and the reason we don't do a consumer brand is our culture - we're very much into pushing our partners forward. Would we ever do a consumer brand? I'd never say never, but our business model is about partnerships and about the way we do business."

Samsung Galaxy S4 - using a huge amount of ARM tech

Just to give a quick example of how prevalent ARM has become, the Samsung Galaxy S4 uses a huge amount of ARM technology, the Microsoft Surface RT is the first example of Windows on something other than the traditional (Intel-based) X86 PC platform, the Nike Fuelband has an ARM chip, and if your phone has a Snapdragon processor from Qualcomm, it is based on ARM's processor.

Taking lessons from others?

Given that kind of presence, TechRadar asked Drew if ARM could look to replicate the clever way in which Corning's Gorilla Glass has gone from phone component to a familiar consumer selling point.

"Certainly consumers are becoming more savvy - and we have some plans to go into that space," Drew said. "But let's look at it in a different way; We're talking about phones but I don't think of it as a phone - a phone is what I had ten years ago - it's a PC. In reality what we are doing with it is a lot more than just as phone and what I would like to do is bring the ARM association in with all those other things as well.

"There's a whole pile of add-ons like the Nike fuel band and [the smartphone] is going to be more and more the centre of your world. Yes we need to be associated with that but we need to be associated with it in a positive way that adds all those things together.

"Building a brand takes multiples years. I think we are getting there but we have to be centre of our universe first, then we then expand to places like Hollywood and the software industry. I don't think the next step is consumer: ultimately we'd look at consumer but the next step is the influencers. We're not going to see an ARM inside logo on devices, but it's how you get the people writing about those phones saying it's got a Cortex A15 versus 'x' and giving you data to go and do that."

ARM's Cortex processors are increasingly prevalent

"We're a typical British company we're not going to shout about [our success] but things like seeing Warren [East] on stage with Samsung, of being involved with huge announcements, are helping."

ARM vs Intel

Intel's dominance of the processor market in traditional computing has increasingly be challenged by the rise in mobile, something the chip giant is now working hard to work its way into - whereas Windows RT showed the shift the industry has taken towards ARM's designs. So what has prompted this shift?

"There are no unique laws of physics," said Drew. "So what's different between ARM and Intel?

"One is that ARM cores are much smaller and take lower power, secondly we allow people to differentiate, allowing people like Texas Instruments, Nvidia, Qualcomm and Mediatech to build on what we have done and the third one is about volume.

"You look at eight or nine billion cores shipped each year - of which 1.5 billion micro-controllers helping build the internet of things, thousands are in servers and see that there's a huge spread that software developers can target - it's not just a pc anymore and that allows software developers to say 'I can do this because its on ARM'.

"I talk to more software developers than I do any other part of the industry - and it has become a huge ecosystem. For anyone who works on phones I would say you have to know about ARM."

Microsoft's Surface RT is Windows on ARM processors rather than the traditional X86

A self-confessed 'tablet geek' Drew is fascinated by the democratisation of the internet, showing off a £150/$230 quad-core tablet from China that is 4K capable alongside the inevitable Microsoft Windows Surface which runs on ARM architecture ("Maybe it's just because of where I work but everyone tells me how much they like it," he says as an aside, adding that it's now his primary out-and-about work device.)

"If you want to democratise the internet, I've seen tablets in China being sold at 35 quid," he said.

With the whole tablet industry flourishing, there's more tablets and laptops shipping using ARM than on Intel. So ask yourself, 'is this going to revolutionise the industry?

"I bought $50 tablets in Taiwan and that is what my kids use. I have an iPad for media, and for work I carry an RT device, I don't carry a laptop. What I do know is that I have a lot of options - I think it's a whole new way of doing things and that has democratised the internet.

"I gave an internal speech last week about the next billion users of phones being in emerging markets. There's a whole new class of people who have disposable income and their first devices will be phones."

Is the future wearable?

Drew believes that the breadth of ARM's scale - from 50 cent micro-controllers to complex high-end chips - stands the company in good stead. Which obviously prompted TechRadar to ask about another burgeoning area of technology - wearable tech.

Nike's Fuelband - wearable tech making an impact

"We have talked to wearable technology companies - we're an IP provider so yes we're involved in companies that do wearable tech - although not Google Glass.

"Yes I'd have liked [to have been attached to the Google Glass product] but I'd also like to make sure there was differentiation - multiple players - because in reality one size doesn't fit all. I think it's all about the data that comes off of this technology and how you use it. Google Glass, the Nike band, smart meters - it's all about the data and how you use that data that's the important thing."

As a company focused on providing designs that cater for the next generation of chips, ARM needs to future-gaze, and Drew provided us with three rules that keep the company agile and innovative.

"We design our IP so it can work across multiple devices, the Cortex a15 is in phones, tablets, servers, tvs etc because it's designed to work across all of them. So firstly, don't hem yourself in.

"Secondly make sure you have enough software in the ecosystem -so we have to think three to five years ahead to what software's needed and find ways to do it.

"Finally, when we define new products we don't just talk to the semiconductor manufacturers, but we'll also go to people like the OEMs and film companies in Hollywod and say 'we're thinking about doing this. What do you think?'"

It all sounds so simple, when put like that, but ARM's quiet ways have propelled it into becoming one of the most influential technology companies on the planet. Not bad for a Cambridge-based company whose first product appeared in an Acorn computer. From Acorns...

ARM wearable technology servers
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