ARM: From Newton to the iPad

Tudor Brown, a senior founder of ARM, recently bid adieu to the Cambridge-based company.

The corporation licenses RISC chips that can be found in a wide range of mobile products, including Apple’s wildly popular iPhone/iPad, Amazon’s Kindle e-readers and Nintendo’s 3DS handheld game consoles.

But Brown – who was originally employed as an engineer at Acorn Computers – told theBBCthat the early days at ARM were far from “rosy.” 

“All of ARM’s early products failed commercially,” he explained. 

“There’s a long list of them: the Acorn machine, the Apple Newton, the 3DO multi-player – the world’s first CD-based games console – there were a whole bunch of things like that.”

According to Brown, Apple’s Newton, which launched in 1992, was a major commercial flop because it was far ahead of its time. 

“It was too big, it was too slow, its handwriting technology didn’t work,” said Brown.

“The sort of vision of what it was supposed to be was remarkably close to what the iPhone is today… but the technology wasn’t fast enough for the time.”

Although Newton may have failed abysmally, Brown noted that the cash Apple subsequently generated from selling its share in ARM Holdings proved quite useful to Cupertino in the future.

“[It] sort of rescued Apple financially, and a few years later Apple started using ARM technology in the iPod, and eventually that same technology got transferred into the iPhone and iPad.”

Brown also emphasized that ARM itself was positively influenced by the failed project, as the focus shifted to low-power usage, along with a “simplicity and elegance” of versatile design. 

“A few months ago we brought out our smallest ever product, the Cortex-M0+. I did a quick sum on the numbers being presented and it told me it could run at a reasonable speed for 20 years on a single AA battery. That enables a whole bunch of things that wouldn’t otherwise be possible,” he added. 

Indeed, over 6.1 billion ARM-based chips were sold in 2010, representing an impressive 55% unit increase from 2009 as numerous processors were licensed in diverse market segments such as smartphones, mobile computers, digital TVs and set-top boxes.  

In 2011, ARM’s total revenue hit $192 million in the third quarter, posting an increase of 22% compared to the same quarter of 2010 due to 28 new chip licensing revenue. The company also announced a move into the lucrative server market, with Calxeda introducing the first ARM-based server chip in November 2011 and HP kicking off production of ARM-based servers in 2012.