The giant of Cambridgeshire (Part 1)

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Mike Bedford goes in search of the British tech firm that’s taking or the world — and winning.

Description: The giant of Cambridgeshire

For as long as most of us care to remember, the battle for the mainstream processor market has been fought between two main protagonists, Intel and AMD, while semiconductor manufactures like Sun and IBM traditionally concentrated on more specialist Unix server and workstation ma! Unnoticed to many, another company has risen to a point of dominance, with sales of chips based on its technology far surpassing those of Intel and AMD combined. That pioneering company is ARM Holdings, and while it’s not a name that’s on lips in the same way that the “big two” are, indications suggest that this company will continue to go from strength to strength. Here we put ARM in the spotlight investigating its past and heritage but more importantly, also looking at the future for this unsung hero of the microelectronics revolution.


Description: Ed Plowman, technical marketing manager at ARM’s Media Processing Division, says healthcare Is a big growth area for the company

Ed Plowman, technical marketing manager at ARM’s Media Processing Division, says healthcare Is a big growth area for the company


Description:             A While most top computer companies are in Silicon Valley, ARM’s HQ Is in Cambridge’s Silicon Fen

A While most top computer companies are in Silicon Valley, ARM’s HQ Is in Cambridge’s Silicon Fen


While most of the semiconductor industry is, and always has been, based in California’s Silicon Valley, it makes a refreshing change that ARM’S headquarters are here in the UK in the so-called Silicon Fen area around Cambridge. Despite ARM not being a household name, the company is no Johnny-come-lately. Indeed, if we trace ARM back to its roots we find a company that was a major force in the personal computing boom of the early ‘80s.

Back in 1980, the IBM PC was still in development and those personal computers that did exist were hugely expensive, costing the equivalent of several thousand pounds in today’s terms. The UK had just made its mark on personal computing with the launch of the Sinclair ZX80. This was the first computer to sell for less than $160 - something that helped the UK to lead the world in home computer ownership throughout the 1980s. One of the most influential companies to follow in Sinclair’s footsteps was Acorn Computers. Just a year later, Acorn brought out the BBC Micro, which found its way into just about every school in the UK and went on to sell about one and a half million units.

Acorn’s successor to the BBC Micro, the Archimedes, wasn’t nearly as successful as a computer, but was far more influential because of Acorn’s choice of processor. While the BBC Micro used an off-the-shelf 8-bit 6502 from MOS Technology, for the Archimedes Acorn decided to design its own high performance 32-bit RISC (reduced instruction set computer) chip, which it called an Acorn RISC Machine or ARM processor.

In 1990, in a joint venture with Apple and VLSI Technology (a company that designed and manufactured custom and semi-custom chips), Acorn span off its research division as a separate company called Advanced RISC Machines. In due course, this offshoot would evolve into the ARM Holdings we know today.

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