Why ARM wants to do more

March 16, 2017 // By Peter Clarke
Since its formation in 1990 processor IP licensor ARM Ltd. (Cambridge, England) has continually added layers of engineering activity to its primary business of circuit design licensing.

However, Moore's Law and the passage of time drives change as does corporate success, and for ARM the speed of layering up of technical activity appears to be accelerating. ARM is now a subsidiary of Japan's Softbank Group and one of the reasons Softbank made its $32 billion acquisition of ARM in 2016 was because it liked the company's active and comprehensive position on the Internet of Things (IoT). ARM is now a solutions company according to Ian Smythe, senior director of marketing programs at ARM; and that would also seem to reflect that things are changing.

Time was when ARM defined itself as a means by which the semiconductor industry could avoid repeatedly re-inventing the processor. Or looked at another way, ARM was akin to an outsourced processor R&D group for industry players. As a result, ARM designed processor cores and licensed them to multiple semiconductor companies – and that was it. The semiconductor companies saved money and ARM made a little.

To help it sign up semiconductor companies as licensees ARM pioneered a partnership model that extended up and down the value chain and Robin Saxby (then CEO and now Sir Robin Saxby) was notorious for cramming as many company logos as possible on to a slide, as he developed the now commonplace idea of "the ecosystem." And ARM made it clear it would never compete with its semiconductor licensees.

But over time complexity has arrived not only in-core and on-chip in terms of what can be manufactured monolithically, but also in terms of the systems and applications these SoCs must serve.

A move into physical IP – with the acquisition of Artisan in 2004 – may have been seen by most as arcane and non-threatening; a good thing to help tune CPU cores around power, performance and area. But ARM has also moved into adjacent markets such as graphics processing units (GPUs) under the Mali brand and short-range radio via its Cordio IP family.

In Cordio it has blocks for the IEEE 802.15.4 standard, which is the basis for ZigBee, 6LowPan, Thread and others. It also has a Bluetooth 5 capable core and therefore almost by definition a core that can do both. This has accompanied dramatic success for the Cortex-M series of cores aimed at providing the intelligence for the world's microcontrollers.

ARM drove the creation of Linaro a collaborative engineering organization, which helps develop open-source software for ARM cores and ARM-based chips and inhibit Linux fragmentation on ARM. And in a similar vein it should be noted that ARM is a founder member of home-oriented Thread Group.

And with particular regard to the Internet of Things (IoT) ARM is now highly active. There are such developments as driving the creation of the mbed standard for microcontroller boards and a community around them and the creation of the mbed OS.

Next: mbed at Embedded World