‘In a sense, Acorn did take over Apple’

posted in: General, Technology | 4

Sophie Wilson EPO13Although Acorn and RISC OS in general has been out of the mainstream for a long while now, our platform’s influence still lurks in the background even in times of constant and fierce technological advancements. The operating system and the bulk of Acorn’s hardware may have fallen to the wayside, but the ARM processor is advancing in ways that couldn’t have been forecast a decade ago.

A company that have had much success out of products powered by ARM technology is Apple, an outfit that seems to have taken over Microsoft’s role as the one technology company constantly in the limelight as of late, be it for positive or negative reasons.

Something I found quite interesting was award-winning Computer Scientist Sophie Wilson’s comments on how Acorn’s original work has allowed for a strong Apple stance in the technology markets, albeit decades after Acorn’s initial efforts with their ARM processors and accompanying hardware.

Sophie, a fundamental part of the initial team to develop Acorn computers, the ARM processor and programming language BBC BASIC, was interviewed in reference to the a lifetime achievement she received for her work as well as the milestone reached for 50 billion ARM chips manufactured.

Two decades ago, Apple and Acorn’s situations were quite similar, both in technology and marketing. In fact, Apple were close to succumbing to the same fate as Acorn on a number of occasions, after failing to succeed in the desktop computer market from a residential and commercial standpoint.

“I think we just didn’t have the marketing capability to match what the technology could do.” Sophie told The Telegraph, when asked about Acorn’s failing desktop computing strategy. Apple have both: marketing and technology. And that turned out to be much more useful.

“Acorn managed to manage to stem the tide for really long time. In a sense we did take over Apple; their technology is powered by ARM. Apple have licenses for ARM technology to build their own chips.”

Although Acorn computers themselves, despite initial success in the British education market, eventually died a death on the desktop front. The core of all Acorns, the ARM chip was in high demand through and was picked by Apple as a potential key to their advancement into the mobile computing market.

ipad-mini-3Acorn and Apple entered a partnership in 1990, and launched ARM, which both parties holding 43% shares in the company.

Fast forward to 2015, ARM do not manufacture but license their designs and processor range to a global market – largely dominated by mobile device manufacturers but also invested in by a considerable amount of desktop and embedded solutions companies.

It’s estimated that the average British household owns up to 50 ARM processors, from set-top boxes and phones to broadband routers and even burglar alarms.

It’s quite interesting to think that two companies in two very similar boats over two decades ago have branched out in such different ways. Apple, struggling to gain a marketshare in any technological field at one point, have expanded so rapidly in the last decade – pioneering the landscape of computing and the way we interact with technology in different environments, all powered by ARM.

Then you have Acorn, a company, just like Apple struggling to gain a decent marketshare all those years ago, ceasing the development and production of all desktop computers in late 1998 in order to concentrate on the development of Set-top Box and DSL solutions before renaming to Element 14 in January 1999, who were then bought out by communications giant Broadcom a little over nine months later.

4 Responses

  1. Aaron

    Interesting read, although the headline statement isn’t strictly true. Apple have the ability and means to migrate their computers to any platform they see fit. They choose to run their portable systems on ARM chips for financial reasons I assume, but to attribute their success to the adoption of ARM chips in their devices is misguided.

  2. Gareth

    Aaron, read your computing history and don’t make misguided comments like that

  3. cmb

    I may be at risk of feeding the troll here, but Aaron does have a point to a certain degree. Apply do have the ability and means to migrate to any platform they see fit, but that is down to A) their huge financial wealth, and B) OS X is Unix based – porting to other architectures would be an easier task than say porting RISC OS to x86.

    I’d argue their success is almost solely contributed towards their adoption of ARM chips. Apple were essentially dead in the water for a very long time, surviving on niche markets until the iPhone and iPad hit the mainstream.

  4. Tom

    I don’t think Apple’s success has anything to do with ARM, to be honest. They were using ARMs in Newtons and other products and were still tanking, while their recovery came down to four major changes:

    1. The massive cull/simplification of their product line when Steve Jobs returned, coupled with a huge reduction in stock in the channel, ie. wasted expenditure gathering dust;

    2. The iMac, started before Jobs returned;

    3. The ability to ditch their festering old OS, thanks to what is in effect the reverse acquisition of Apple by NeXT… thinking about management, culture, strategy, technology, it was as if NeXT bought Apple for minus-$500m;

    4. The iPod, launched in 2001, but not really getting going until 2004.

    The first three changes stemmed and halted the collapse of Apple, and then the iPod launched the recovery for real.

    Now, sure, the iPod was ARM-powered; most contemporaneous MP3 players were. However, there were other ways it could’ve been done if ARM wasn’t available: ARM wasn’t an enabling technology in this regard; it was the best tool for the job, but not the only one. After all the Palm Pilot — which I’d suggest was a huge influence on iPhone and smartphones as a whole — was 68000-based; they migrated to ARM right around the time Palm’s bubble burst, although the timing was probably coincidental.

    Crediting ARM with Apple’s success is like crediting Intel with Microsoft’s success: if Intel hadn’t been around (or IBM hadn’t picked them) today’s PCs would be derived from Z80 or 68000 instead. Microsoft just supported what was available, popular and cheap.

    Don’t get me wrong: I love ARM, and have fond memories of writing assembly code on Arthur and RISCOS.

    I think other companies would have (and did) try to build ultra-low-cost RISC processors similar to ARM, but ARM were the right people in the right place at the right time and captured the market successfully. If ARM weren’t around someone else would have captured it with a similar product. While ARM was revolutionary and very prescient, they weren’t actually _that_ innovative: others were working on the same kind of thing, but moving a lot slower.

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