The story of technology super heroes at ARM

When I was approached with an idea for a book on the history of ARM in mobile devices, the thought was to just step through each successive generation of processor development. After some initial research, I found the seminal text from Steve Furber and plenty of ARM origin tales – but something was missing.


Most of the ARM origin stories to date came from one of two angles. The first was ARM architecture was developed at Acorn Computers, the “British Apple”. Acorn and Apple were strongly tied together in a shared experience around the 6502 processor. However, when Acorn tried to move in the direction of business computers using their new chip, they were in an uphill battle against the entire IBM PC ecosystem including their own parent company, Olivetti.

The second angle was the creators of ARM architecture had set out to design a low-power processor. That was serendipitous at best in the early phases; low power was a byproduct of a RISC part with fewer transistors. There was also a sense that Intel “wouldn’t sell to us”, but in fact the Intel 80286 was woefully inadequate for the Acorn use case as a co-processor. The same held true for the Motorola 68000 and other processors tested. Acorn successfully designs a processor, then undergoes soul-searching as to how to sell it, eventually concluding they needed to spin off the technology in its own company with new leadership.

So, we set off to uncover the real origin story of ARM, and the result is the first half of Mobile Unleashed. While mobile phones gain acceptance and shift from analog to digital technology, a struggling Apple in the wake of the Steve Jobs dismissal is experimenting with an idea for a personal digital assistant. Neither of those camps are able to find a processor to meet their needs. Through a complex timeline of events, Apple latches on to ARM to save its Newton project, and Nokia adopts ARM processors after an introduction from TI.

In the second half of the book, we explore the evolution of ARM technology. We pick up the story just as Steve Jobs returns to Apple and sets a new course for “digital dreams”, and follow along behind the scenes of iPod, iPhone, and iPad development. We also dive into the evolution of two other powerhouses in mobile devices, Samsung and Qualcomm, each with a unique philosophy and a long path to success. As these three firms rise, other leaders fall, and a new crop of Asian firms appears with the next challenge.

For me, writing this book was a thrill. I found my Six Degrees in two places. First, I discovered just how close I was to the founders of Qualcomm through ties at the University of Southern California where I studied digital communications from professors in their circle of friends and collaborators. One of the biggest historical finds we uncovered is a signed photo of the Qualcomm CDMA team in front of their white prototype van. Second, I discovered I was in the wake of Robin Saxby, who had helped form what became the Motorola Computer Group a decade before I arrived there. I was able to use that perspective, including tidbits from an inside view of Motorola and a near-neighbor view of Intel, in telling the ARM story.

Many thanks to Daniel Nenni, who provided source material for several sections, edits and feedback, and industry connections for objective review of our drafts. (Disclaimer: None of the companies mentioned sponsored or endorsed this book.)

Mobile Unleashed is now available in print and Kindle formats.

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