A brief history and explanation of ARM processors.
Featuring Tom Merritt.
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Qualcomm uses an ARM processor.
But isn’t Qualcomm’s processor called a Snapdragon?
Is a Snapdragon an ARM processor?
And doesn’t iPhone have ARM?
What does ARM make?
Confused? Don’t be.
Let’s help you Know a Little more about ARM processors
I’m going to try to give you a good top level overview. ARM gets thrown around alongside chipmakers like AMD and INtel but it’s a little different. Intel and AMD design chips they sell under their own names. ARM only design chips.
A lot of folks don’t realize this. Aome do. But I thought I would dig into what ARM is to help you clarify that. I’m not going to get into chip architecture and instruction sets. You only need to know what those things are in a top level way
Chip architecture is the building of the chip. Instruction sets are the instructions that run on the chips and tell the chips how to work based on the parts they have. That’s all you need to know to understand what we’re talking about today.
And while we discuss this, I’d like you to keep this thought in mind: “What separates ARM from a patent troll?” I’m not saying they are a troll. In fact, I do not think they are. But I’m going to circle back to that question. Just keep that question in the back of your mind. I think it’s a very important example that can help shape the line between proper and improper intellectual property protection.
ARM Holdings is the company that creates the reduced instruction set computing, or RISC architectures for computer processors. It also designs cores that implement the instruction set. So you’ve got the RISC instruction set and you got the core that can implement the instruction set. And important to note that a company can license just the instruction set or can license the design of the core that runs the instruction set itself. ARM licenses these designs to other companies who can build the products. I’m going to repeat this a lot. It doesn’t build any products itself.
Let’s start by talking about ARM’s history. Because through it’s history you’ll see how it evolved into the niche it occupies now. ARM grew out of the famous UK company Acorn Computers, the folks who made the legendary BBC Micro. After the success of the Micro, the folks at Acorn were working on the Acorn business computer but the chips they had been using for the micro just weren’t powerful enough. So they go out and take a look around. They visit places to see what options they have. And they determine they probably are going to have to design this thing themselves
So engineer Sophie Wilson looked at everything they had found and said, I could do that. And she developed an instruction set, THE instruction set. I mean, it’s evolved over time, don’t get me wrong, but Sophie Wilson is the one who developed the instruction set that would end up being the linchpin upon which ARM is built. And then they implemented that instruction set in hardware with Sophie Wilson and another engineer named Steve Furber leading the design of the acorn RISC machine or A-R-M or ARM. Now ARM doesn’t stand for that anymore, but we’ll get to that. The first silicon samples of the ACorn RISC Machine were made by VLSI. Yeah, even then they they farmed it out to VLSI.
The first chips were received and successfully tested on April 26 1985. It was first used as a secondary processor in the BBC Micro. The first ARM-based computer, where the ARM-design was the principal processor was the Acorn Archimedes in 1987.
Well pretty soon Acorn started working with Apple on newer versions of the ARM core. And Apple said, this is a pretty cool idea. And VLSI thought it was a pretty cool idea. So in November 1990 Acorn spun out the ARM design team as a joint venture with VLSI and Apple.
Now, Apple and Acorn had a pretty competitive relationship throughout the 80s. So Apple said, We’d love to be part of this joint project. We would not love it not to be called Acorn RISC Machines. Could we call it something else? So they named the company Advanced RISC Machines Limited, which in 1998 just became ARM limited.
Let’s jump to 1992 when the ARM six came out and was used in the Apple Newton. Turns out that’s why Apple was interested in ARM. They had this idea! It’s an idea that didn’t really take off, but look what spun out of the apple Newton? So many things including ARM.
The ARM design got famous for the low power usage of its chip designs, making it a favorite for PDAs after the Newton, as well as eventually mobile phones, and ARM went public with an IPO in 1998. So ARM is going along making designs for chips used in mobile devices and as smart phones take off, ARM benefits. And exists as its own company until September 5, 2016 when Softbank acquired it.
So what does ARM sell? ARM does not sell tangible products. It licenses its cores and its instruction sets. IP cores are used to create microcontrollers CPUs systems on a chip. The ARM core is combined with other parts to produce a complete device that can be made in fabs, in the semiconductor fabrication plants. Now companies can license arm technology into their own SOC design their own system on a chip design, with other components like GPUs, radio, baseboards, etc. Radio baseboards are needed for phones to communicate with the cellular network.
So they can license that ARM design in a few ways
They can use it in their own system on a chip design
OR they can license full chip sets from ARM
OR a company can also design a chip and can modify the ARM design a little.
So when you hear it’s an ARM Chip, it’s never actually an ARM chip. The chip’s design maybe wholly ARM. The design could be ARM in combination with other things on the system. Or the design could be ARM modified. That could mean it was tweaked a little, maybe some optimizations, some extensions. Or more radically with something called the ARM Cortex license that lets companies make actual modifications to the design. When that last happens, ARM promises not to share those modifications with other companies.
So for instance Qualcomm, with the Snapdragon licenses the built on ARM Cortex license. So Qualcomm is like kind of designing its chip in collaboration with ARM, roughly speaking very roughly speaking.
Now there’s also the instruction set.
Companies can also get an architectural license where they build their own CPU and license only the instruction set. So the company is saying, we want to just build the CPU. I’m sure there’s complications about licensing patents in there and things like that but at base they’re not going to license the chip’s design- not even with modifications– just the instructions.
This is a company that says we like the instruction set but we want to design the hardware ourselves and we don’t want ARM even knowing about what we’re doing. We’re very secretive. In other words, Apple. Apple does this. The arm instructions run the chip that Apple designs for its mobile devices. And it’s not just Apple. Broadcom does this. Nvidia. Samsung even Qualcomm does this for some of its chips. They all take part in that architectural license.
And it’s worth mentioning that ARM doesn’t just do the CPUs and systems on a chip they also do a GPU. ARM’s Mali GPU can be licensed. There’s even ARM supercomputer that is bought by Cray and Cray offers it in their supercomputers. There’s a few others in there.
So we’re back around, I think we have an understanding of what ARM does they create designs, instruction sets, hardware designs, and then they tell people, okay, we won’t sue you for patent infringement if you license this technology from us. And patents, you know, they expire at different rates around the world but but generally speaking, computer world moves fast enough that the old designs aren’t that useful for ARM to make money off of, so they’re not out there, asking for longer and longer extensions. What they’re doing is creating newer and newer versions of ARM. That’s why you’ll hear announcements about new ARM processors.
So let’s get back to that questions from earlier about what separates ARM from being a patent troll? it doesn’t make anything. You’ve heard me repeat this now a million times. And that’s often the big criticism of patent trolls. They just hold a bunch of patents and make people pay to use them. Licensing right? The difference is ARM contributes to the ecosystem. It continually develops new technologies, even if it doesn’t build them. And it works with its partners. It doesn’t say we have a big pile of papers and you can pay to make sure that we don’t use those papers in a court case against you. ARM says, we’ll let you use the technology or we’ll work with you to modify it together, whatever you want, so they’re active in doing this. It’s not just collecting rent, it continues to build new IP and it has no need to continue to protect the old as the new becomes much more valuable and to me I’m not saying ARM is perfect, there are problems, and there are disputes. But this is this is an example of what intellectual property should be doing creating a company that actively provides value to the ecosystem through its ideas. That’s really what arm is selling. ARM is selling ideas, but it’s doing it in a way that people find those ideas valuable and worth paying for. And the protection of patents gives it the shelter to do that without preventing their innovations from ever being used again. You know, once an ARM patent expires, it’s probably too old to make a lot of money off of it anymore, but it’s something that people can look at and go Okay, now we can use that freely as a basis for our own innovations.
I think this is interesting. The most successful chip company, certainly in mobile, isn’t a chip company. It’s an intellectual property company. And we often kind of break things down into, you either need to protect your intellectual property forever– that’s the copyright debate, especially in the United States, or things have to be free!
But a lot of folks think intellectual property should be used to encourage the creation and development of the arts and sciences. There are problems with abuse of patents Don’t get me wrong, but ARM shows there is a way to do it largely right? In a way that that does make the ecosystem stronger and better for everybody. I hope this was of interest to you. It was interest of me, especially some of that history about where ARM came from.
In other words I hope now you feel like you Know a Little More about ARM.