Tuesday, 30 October 2012

How The BBC Microcomputer Became The Heart Of Your Mobile

This was my first computer. It was in constant...
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Warning - Ancient Geek Post

Ever heard of Advanced RISC Machines or ARM for short? Few people have, but this British company's designs power over 95% of smartphones and tablets in the world today and they're now starting to be used in next generation low-powered servers by major players like Dell and HP.

Where did that come from? From the BBC Micro, if you please. Any British Ancient Geeks out there will remember the cream boxes with the black and red keyboards that were made by Acorn Computer to accompany the BBC's computer literacy push back in the early 1980s. It was an odd offshoot of an odd little industry - long sidelined by Silicon Valley, the Brits had been consistent pioneers of computer technologies, but their innovation never seemed to gain traction and company after company was doomed to fail while US corporations powered to dominance.

One of the earliest pioneers of computing - in the 1950s - was actually British tea company Lyons, believe it or not. And the early 1980s was a time when it looked as if we might actually make it back to the top table of innovation - Acorn Computer, Dragon and Sinclair were at the forefront of the British microcomputer boom. It was an exciting time as I can testify as I was, albeit painfully young and utterly clueless, involved in a ground-breaking British startup myself.

Acorn got up to some ground breaking innovation in its BBC computers, which at one stage looked like they might conquer the US educational market as they had conquered the UK. One aspect of that innovation was its groundbreaking adoption of RISC technologies. Reduced Instruction Set Computing was an approach to processor design that threw less complex tasks at the processor at any one time, resulting in faster, more nimble systems. In fact, Acorn's follow-up to the BBC Micro, the Archimedes, was technically superior to its competitors, but it lacked one thing. It wasn't a PC. Acorn ceded the British educational market to PC clone maker RIM and its Nimbus machines.

Acorn span off its RISC chip design business into a joint venture with Apple and silicon valley chip maker VLSI Technology. By 1998 Acorn, now struggling to remain afloat, took the company to IPO, raising some $29 million. Though handy, the money wasn't enough to stop Acorn being split, stripped and sold. VLSI was to last no longer and was acquired by Philips. That left only ARM and Apple standing.

ARM carried on in the background, quietly designing its clever RISC processors and licensing the technology rather than trying to make the chips itself. Its smart, fast, low-power core processors and graphics chips were licensed by a growing number of chip makers around the world. And then in 2007, after almost three years of secretive R&D work, Apple launched the iPhone. At its core, the beating heart of its System on a Chip architecture, a high performance, low-power ARM Cortex 8 processor.

When Google's Android came along, based on the Linux open source operating system (which ARM had presciently worked to support), the world changed. The combination of Apple's innovation and Google's wide-ranging alliance with handset manufacturers transformed mobile, sidelining Nokia and creating a massive inflection point in technology. These new systems needed smart, powerful, small chipsets with low power consumption. And that's precisely what ARM was offering. This week saw Microsoft, painfully late to the market, unveil its Surface tablet computer based on Windows RT - its mobile operating system and the first Microsoft operating system ever to be based on a non Intel processor.

It's based on a chip from a small, 2,000 person company in Cambridge called ARM...
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Grumpy Goat said...

I heard you relating this story on Dubai Eye on 31st October, and was fascinated. Now I see that you'd prepared it all well in advance.

Not that it makes the story of Whatever Became of Acorn? any less interesting.

Alexander McNabb said...

Well, not so much prepared in advance but had researched (and posted) the story and loved it so much I HAD to bring it on to the UnWired show.

It's a cool tale, no? :)

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