A History of ARM Part 2: Everything is beginning to fall into place

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Enlarge / The Acorn Archimedes 3000, released May 1989.


The story so far: In the late 1980s, Acorn Computers was at a crossroads. A small team led by Sophie Wilson and Steve Furber had invented a powerful new computer chip, the Acorn RISC Machine (ARM). Acorn released a new line of computers, the Archimedes, that used these ARM chips. But the world didn’t make its way to the company’s door. (Read part one here.)

From the beginning it was difficult to get anyone interested in this amazing technology. A few months after the first ARM chips shipped, Steve Furber of Acorn Computers called a tech reporter and tried to get him to cover the story. The reporter replied, “I don’t believe you. If you had, I would have known.” Then he hung up.

While Acorn struggled, Furber tried to imagine how the ARM chip could be spun off into a separate company. But he couldn’t figure out how to make the business model work. “You’d have to sell millions before royalties foot the bills,” he said in an interview. “We couldn’t imagine selling millions of these things.”

The future looked bleak – until a representative from another computer company walked through the door. A little company called Apple.

A new company

How did Apple find out about ARM in the first place? Two engineers in Apple’s Advanced Technology Group, Paul Gavarini and Tom Pittard, had built a prototype computer called Mobius. Es verwendete einen ARM2-Chip und führte sowohl Apple ][alsauchMacintosh-Softwareausundemuliertedie6502-und68000-CPUsschnelleralsdienativenVersionenDasobereManagementvonApplewarvondieserMaschineverwirrtundbeendetesieschnellaberGavariniundPittardschlugenbeiinternenPräsentationenweiteraufdieTrommelvonARMundzeigtenbeeindruckendeBenchmarksbeimAusführenvonLISP[andMacintoshsoftwareemulatingthe6502and68000CPUsfasterthanthenativeversionsUppermanagementatApplewasconfusedbythismachineandquicklykilleditbutGavariniandPittardkeptbeatingthedrumofARMatinternalpresentationsshowingimpressivebenchmarkswhenrunningLISP[alsauchMacintosh-Softwareausundemuliertedie6502-und68000-CPUsschnelleralsdienativenVersionenDasobereManagementvonApplewarvondieserMaschineverwirrtundbeendetesieschnellaberGavariniundPittardschlugenbeiinternenPräsentationenweiteraufdieTrommelvonARMundzeigtenbeeindruckendeBenchmarksbeimAusführenvonLISP[andMacintoshsoftwareemulatingthe6502and68000CPUsfasterthanthenativeversionsUppermanagementatApplewasconfusedbythismachineandquicklykilleditbutGavariniandPittardkeptbeatingthedrumofARMatinternalpresentationsshowingimpressivebenchmarkswhenrunningLISP

LISP was a heavyweight language, and Apple used it internally to test new graphical interfaces. However, it was considered too bulky for embedded applications. When Apple veteran Larry Tesler saw these benchmarks, a light bulb went off.

Tesler had just taken over the Apple Newton project and needed to replace its slow and buggy CPU, the AT&T Hobbit. The ARM chip looked like a winner. Not only was it a speed demon, but its incredibly low power consumption made it ideal for the Newton portable device.

Apple CEO John Sculley demonstrates a pre-production version of the Newton.

Apple CEO John Sculley demonstrates a pre-production version of the Newton.


Tesler set up a meeting with the ARM team and he liked what he saw on their roadmap. But there was a problem. Apple was a computer company and Acorn was a direct competitor.

This laid the foundation for a fateful decision. The ARM employees wanted relief from Acorn’s declining fortune. Acorn’s majority owner, Olivetti, was more interested in making IBM PC clones. VLSI Technology, the silicon foundry that made the ARM chip, wanted more customers. And Apple wanted to license the chip. The split from ARM was in everyone’s interest.

In November 1990, a three-way deal was reached. Apple invested $3 million in cash for a 30 percent stake. VLSI invested half a million plus its knowledge and tools. Acorn transferred all of its ARM intellectual property and twelve employees in a deal valued at $3 million. At Apple’s request, the new company was renamed Advanced RISC Machines. ARM was now on its own.

A new leader

The first ARM headquarters.  Yes, it was a barn conversion!
Enlarge / The first ARM headquarters. Yes, it was a barn conversion!


Before Apple put its money down, it wanted to choose a CEO for ARM. Apple hired the same headhunting company that found John Sculley, but this time it had far better results. The man they hired was Robin Saxby.

Saxby was born in Chesterfield, England, in 1947. Already as a child he was fascinated by electrical installations and as a teenager he started his first business repairing radios and televisions. He went to Liverpool University and studied electrical engineering. After graduating in 1968, he first helped develop England’s first transistor television.

He joined Motorola in 1973 and was quickly promoted to sales engineer. So his job was to travel to the company’s customers and help them create their designs using Motorola products. When he moved into the CPU department, he figured his customers would all be mainstream computer companies. To his surprise, most people who wanted Motorola CPUs had niche embedded applications in mind. At one point he wrote a proposal for Motorola to spin off its CPU design team and offer design services, but management didn’t like the idea.

Robin Saxby in the 1990s.

Robin Saxby in the 1990s.

Daily Mail

After Motorola, Saxby joined a startup called ES2 that was attempting to develop new technology for making silicon chips. ES2 had built some test chips for ARM, so Saxby was already familiar with the company. But when asked to join ARM as its first CEO, he doubted he was the best man for the job.


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