British chip design giant ARM is promising a breakthrough in mobile compute power thanks to its Media Processing Division, but can a brand which spends its life hidden behind a curtain truly prosper?
There's no denying that ARM has enjoyed a massive boost to its public profile in recent years. It has shaken off its association with the microcomputing crash - the company's origins can be traced back to British home computing pioneer Acorn Computers, which hit financial troubles with a warehouse full of unsold Electrons and creditors issuing winding up orders in 1985 - and has successfully grown from the hidden secret inside embedded and portable systems into a recognised brand in its own right.
But the company still prefers to operate from the shadows. Unlike Intel, which is attempting to take ARM on in the mobile marketplace with low-power system-on-chip designs of its own, ARM allows its customers power over the branding of its creations. As a result, few end-users have heard of the Cortex-A8 or Mali, while most will be at least passingly familiar with Apple's A5 or Nvidia's Tegra line.
It's something which is inculcated from the very top of the company. Executive vice president Ian Drew spoke to thinq_ at Computex this year to explain that branding is something ARM is happy to leave to others. "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," he said back then. "I think that consumers should be able to buy a product without worrying about the logo on the front."
With ARM's customers hogging the branding limelight with their designs based on the company's IP, that leaves ARM engineers beavering away in secret on projects like the graphics platform Mali. It's there, rather more than at the offices of licensees like Texas Instruments and Samsung, that the real innovation happens.
Mali is the name of ARM's great hope for the multimedia market. Shipping in Samsung's flagship Galaxy S II smartphone, it's an impressive piece of technology. It's also one which few outside the embedded and mobile computing industries are likely to have heard of. The packaging, documentation, and marketing material for the Galaxy S II fails to so much as mention the Mali technology that gives it benchmark-beating power.
"Have you noticed that it doesn't even say ARM there? It's not part of our corporate strategy to push our brand through our partners," explained ARM's director of marketing for the Media Processing Division, Ian Smythe, during an interview with thinq_. It's a statement which toes the company line, enforced from on high by Ian Drew.
"Ian is absolutely... He's the guy that sets the rules," Smythe explained. "And we're not going to go down the 'Intel Inside' platform [route]. Would it be a benefit? In an ideal world, you know, if everyone knew about ARM in the way that everyone knows about Intel, it'd be great. Would Mali, specifically, as a brand, be able to deliver that value? It's something I'd like to see, but I don't see in the short term, and it's not something that we are pursuing in the short term."
While Mali is hidden away in inside tier-one products with nary a mention of the technology, many of ARM's licensees are more forceful with their branding. Graphics specialist Nvidia developed its own GPU technology under the Tegra brand, and makes sure that you know if a device you're buying includes a Tegra chip in it. Qualcomm, while a little more sedate when it comes to logos, is almost as keen for consumers to know about its Snapdragon processor and Adreno graphics technologies as it is about the products in which they hit the market.
"I think that the Mali brand is something which will increasingly be associated with world-class graphics and compute performance," Smythe mused, "but I don't think I'm going to go... We're not going to go the way that Nvidia have gone with Tegra - because we're not a device manufacturer, we're an IP supplier. It's up to our customers that make their decision on how they want to brand their technology, and that's very clear - the relationship between our partners and their customers, to the consumer, is up to them to manage."
That focus on technology, rather than branding, is a world away from where mainstream graphics and processing companies like Intel and AMD sit. As Intel pushes its low-power Atom chips into the tablet and smartphone markets, it will be likely be encouraging its customers to include the 'Intel Inside' branding. The more devices that carry the branding, the more ingrained the Atom brand becomes in consumers' minds.
ARM's approach, which sees the company celebrate the success of the Galaxy S II even though it receives no mention for its contribution from Samsung, is somewhat riskier. It's already winning the company customers, however, with Apple perhaps the most secretive in precisely what technology goes into the A4 and A5 ARM-based processors that sit in its iPhone and iPad products.
"In terms of where we are for Q2 - as the Q2 results are now out - we announced five more licensees for Mali, so we now have 51 licensees, 42 partners, and two more people started paying us money on royalties, so we now have eight royalty payers," Smythe explained. "So, you can see that shift to royalty payment, the broadening of the SoC implementation, the broadening of the companies using Mali, is going up steadily. People ask me - and I've been challenged a few times - 'what's the royalty growth like?'
"I'm very comfortable, is the answer, I'm very comfortable with where we are licensing-wise for Mali. We've had a lot of success and we've licensed very successfully and very publicly our next-generation technology to three new partners in Samsung, Fujitsu, and LG, and we're very comfortably with where we are. I think the [Media Processing Division] business is a solid part of ARM going forward."
With the company aiming for a 500-fold increase in performance without exceeding a 1W power envelope, Mali looks set to take off in a big way over the next couple of generations. Just don't be surprised if you don't see any mention of it the next time you buy a portable device.