The Acorn years
The pre-history of Arm goes back 45 years. In 1978, Acorn Computers was established by co-founders Chris Curry and Hermann Hauser. The start-up managed to land the rights to build and produce the BBC Micro, a UK government initiative that aimed to put a computer in every classroom in the UK. As part of this initiative, Professor Steve Furber and Sophie Wilson designed the very first Arm processor, the ARM1.
It was designed to efficiently execute the instructions of programs running on Acorn computers, such as word processing, spreadsheet calculations and graphics rendering. This laid the foundation for Arm’s modern processors that are used across a wide range of technology devices and markets.
However, Acorn experienced financial difficulties in the mid-’80s which saw the Olivetti Group purchasing the company. Hauser assumed the role of VP of Research at the Olivetti Group, but left soon after. Meanwhile, Furber and Wilson continued working on the next Arm processor, the ARM2 core.
Arm is founded
Arm was officially founded as a company in November 1990 as Advanced RISC Machines Ltd, which was a joint venture between Acorn Computers, Apple Computer (now Apple Inc.), and VLSI Technology (now NXP Semiconductors N.V). The company was founded by 12 Arm architecture designers: Jamie Urquhart, Mike Muller, Tudor Brown, Lee Smith, John Biggs, Harry Oldham, Dave Howard, Pete Harrod, Harry Meekings, Al Thomas, Andy Merritt, and David Seal. In 1991, Sir Robin Saxby joined the company as the first Chairman and CEO, with the team setting out to change the computing landscape from an old turkey barn in Cambridgeshire.
A new IP business model
In 1993, the Apple Newton was launched on the Arm architecture. However, the product was not a commercial success, which led to Saxby realizing that Arm as a company could not be sustained on single products. He introduced the IP business model, which was not common at the time. This meant the Arm processor was available to be licensed to many different companies for an upfront license fee and then royalties based on the amount of silicon produced.
Arm goes into mobile
In 1993, Arm signed a deal with silicon vendor, Texas Instruments, with the company advising Nokia to use the Arm designs for its upcoming GSM mobile phones. The first Arm-powered GSM mobile phone, the Nokia 6110, was a massive success, with the Arm7 processor becoming the flagship mobile design for Arm. Today, more than 99 percent of the world’s smartphones are based on Arm technology.
Company listing and growth
The success of the company in the ‘90s led to the completion of a joint listing for ARM Holdings PLC on the London Stock Exchange and NASDAQ on April 17th 1998. Despite the tech crash of the early 2000s, Arm continued to mature as a company. With Saxby stepping aside (remaining Chairman of Arm), there was a new CEO at the helm, Warren East, who was appointed in 2001. Throughout the 2000s, Arm’s continued success in the mobile market allowed the company to become the most widely used processor architecture. This led to Arm tripling its head count from 400 to 1,300 people in just three years during the ‘00s.
Diversifying the product line
The maturing of Arm as a company led to the increased diversification of its product line through the Cortex-A, Cortex-R, and Cortex-M CPU processors it brought to market in the 2000s. Cortex-A continued the drive towards high-performance and efficiency in mobile device markets, and Cortex-R focused on highly specialized real-time requirements in an age of increasing connectivity. Meanwhile, Cortex-M provided extremely low-power, low-cost cores for microcontrollers that were starting to proliferate across the growing Internet of Things (IoT). Also, in 2006, Arm purchased Falanx Microsystems A/S, a spin-off of a research project from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, which led to the development of the Mali GPU product line.
The rise of smartphones
The introduction of the world’s first smartphones in 2007 created yet more demand for increased performance that maintained a long battery life, while catering to a wide range of new computing capabilities due to the rise of mobile applications. Arm responded to this challenge with its Cortex-A9 CPU multi-core processor, before introducing the innovative “big.LITTLE” approach in 2011, which combined a powerful core for high-performance with a lower power core when high-performance was not needed. This approach is still used by Arm today.
The proliferation of IoT and connected devices in the early and mid-2010s provided fresh technology opportunities for Arm. Its technologies were moving beyond mobile and powering an ever-increasing range of devices across the broadening technology landscape. In the IoT space, these include everything from the smallest embedded device used as ultra-low power sensors to high-performance, large scale industrial and storage applications. In 2022, 65 percent of the world’s embedded IoT devices were built on Arm-based system-on-chips (SoCs).
Arm’s prevalence across the global technology landscape caught the attention of Masayoshi Son (Masa), founder of SoftBank, following a meeting between him and then CEO, Simon Segars, who took over from Warren East in 2014. Within months of this meeting in California, on September 5th 2016, SoftBank completed the acquisition of Arm. This meant that Arm became a private company after nearly 20 years as a public company on the London Stock Exchange and NASDAQ, with SoftBank becoming the company’s controlling shareholder.
Success in new entrants
The SoftBank acquisition allowed Arm to invest heavily in the company and continue its drive for technology diversification across emerging markets, including automotive and infrastructure. This diversification strategy was spearheaded by Rene Haas, president of the IP products group within Arm at the time.
The Arm launch of the Neoverse product line in October 2018 for high-performance computing (HPC) and cloud computing solutions led to significant wins at the end of the 2010s. These included the adoption of Arm-based instances across every major hyperscaler and the fastest supercomputer in the world being powered by Arm-based SoCs in 2019. Meanwhile, the growing need for safe, power-efficient computation in vehicles means that Arm’s footprint in automotive continued to grow, having been active in this market for more than 20 years.
New architecture, new CEO in the 2020s
In March 2021, Arm held its Vision Day which heralded the launch of the new Armv9 architecture, providing advanced computing and security capabilities. In September 2020, NVIDIA, a close Arm partner in the growing data center market, announced that it was planning to purchase Arm, but the proposed deal was withdrawn 18 months later with SoftBank and NVIDIA citing significant regulatory challenges preventing the consummation of the transaction – despite good faith efforts by the parties. In February 2022, Rene Haas was announced as the new Arm CEO, taking over from Segars who decided to step down after 30 years at the company.
Where Arm is today
Due to its successful origins and work from thousands of talented employees over the past 30 plus years, Arm is the global leader in technology that is licensed to semiconductor companies. Arm is a truly global company, with 43 offices in 21 countries and more than 6,000 employees worldwide, including nearly 3,000 in the UK with its global headquarters in Cambridge.
Thanks to a leading technology ecosystem of over 1,000 trusted partners, Arm’s technology has been shipped in more than 265 billion chips, powering everything from sensors to supercomputers. Arm is the most pervasive computing platform worldwide today, with the technology touching approximately 70 percent of the global population.
Just like the vision of the 12 founding Arm members in a Cambridgeshire barn, Arm remains committed to developing technology that will power the future of computing.