The story of ARM is one of success against the odds, and the company now stands as the biggest supplier of embedded and mobile chip designs in the world - but can the good times continue? We chat to company executive vice president Ian Drew ahead of his Computex keynote to find out.
From its origins in the offices of Acorn Computers, from which the ARM architecture gets its original name of the Acorn Risc Machine, as the brainchild of engineer Sophie Wilson, ARM has moved from the desktop into the mobile market with great success - but Intel is making moves to take over, while Microsoft's decision to support ARM in Windows 8 promises to shake up the desktop and laptop industry.
"We're really pleased with what Microsoft is doing," Drew told us - but denied that it would make a major difference to ARM's outlook. "The desktop market is tiny - around six per cent - so it's not something we're massively focused on."
"I think that consumers should be able to buy a product without worrying about the logo on the front," Drew opined. "You won't see an 'ARM Inside' logo any time soon - do you know how much Intel spends on their Intel Inside programme? More than my revenue."
"I'm more excited about the next generation of phones - the desktop market is slowing," Drew claimed - but agreed that Microsoft's support of ARM via its licensees including Qualcomm, Nvidia, and Texas Instruments, is yet another indication that Intel's future is undecided, despite its massive size.
"Three years ago, Intel said they would beat ARM. If you'd taken a straw poll at somewhere like Computex three years ago, and asked who would win - it'd be Intel, no contest." That's not something that's happened, Drew pointed out - and that's largely thanks to his company's partner-led ethos.
ARM's success comes at a cost, however. "I worry about everything - only the paranoid survive," Drew joked. Discussing companies like Tilera, which are increasingly targeting the low-power cloud-computing server market that ARM would like the inhabit with many-core chips based on an innovative new architecture, Drew admitted: "these start-ups are agile enough to take us on," comparing their relative sizes to ARM versus Intel.
Many see ARM's lack of a 64-bit part a problem: the company's current architecture is 32- bit, with a 40-bit memory addressing extension added to the company's latest Cortex-A15 design to handle large quantities of memory - but Drew disagrees. "Our market seems to be doing OK on 32-bit at the moment," he explained. "You walk the floor at Computex, you see lots of tablets, you see the performance of these things - nobody's coming to us and asking for 64-bit."
"What excites me is the breadth of our offering," Drew enthused. "Sitting in Acorn and saying 'could you put this chip in an air conditioning controller?' for example - the answer would have been 'no'. I don't think categorisation is good - it's bad. We should be looking at how to enable the broadest spectrum of products. That's what I love about Taiwan - they work on this large creative spectrum."
Discussing the habit of some ARM licensees to downplay the part the British chip design giant plays in their finished products, Drew was magnanimous. "We like our partners to be at the forefront of everything. I'm about to do a keynote - honestly, I'm embarrassed to be doing it without our partners there. It's all about partnerships."
Those partnerships, Drew explained, are his company's bread and butter. "We only make money when our partners ship. Licensing our architecture barely covers our R&D costs - it's royalties that matter."
For the future, Drew explained that ARM is looking towards the rapid growth of its microcontroller business, and that the company's designs are most certainly destined for the server room. "Servers are a good category to go after," he explained, "We've been working towards this for three or four years already."
The company's Cortex-A15 design, the first with server-specific functionality like 40-bit memory addressing and hardware virtualisation extensions, is due to sample this year, with the first commercial implementations appearing in Q2 2012.