ARM's CEO talks on Google, iPhone and Acorns

Shortly after the iPhone launched earlier this year, the head of microprocessor maker ARM said the new handset will stimulate growth in the smartphone market because the hype around the product would pique people’s interest. Since then, the iPhone, and the smartphone market overall, have taken off.

ARM’s CEO Warren East was back in Taipei just after the launch of Google’s Linux-based open software platform for mobile phones, Android, another potential mover for the smartphone market. But in an interview in Taipei with IDG News Service (IDGNS), he said Android will have a delayed effect on smartphone sales because handsets built around it aren’t expected to hit markets until the middle of next year.

Smartphones are mobile handsets that also run software for e-mail, Web-browsing, mapping and calendaring, and other functions normally found on a laptop PC. Google is making the software only, and plans to offer it to manufacturers to use it in their handsets. Taiwan’s High Tech Computer has said it is already working on a gPhone, or Google phone.

Still, the new handsets will be good for ARM because it supplies its chip technology to the smartphone industry.

In addition to smartphones, East discussed the old Acorn PC, mobile devices for emerging markets, and the potential of putting microcontrollers in electric motors used in washing machines to make them twice as energy efficient, and the huge impact that would have on global energy needs.

IDGNS: ARM processing cores are in the iPhone, what about new Google-based phones that will be coming out in the second half of next year?

East: In a way, that’s not as closely linked to us as the iPhone. The iPhone, from the hardware up, was incorporating a bunch of ARM technology specifically. In theory, the Google phone could be based on Warren East’s own microprocessor, if I had my own microprocessor. It’s not really specific about architecture. Now the obvious place to start, though, is with ARM-based hardware, because phones are based on ARM, so we do have some dialogue with Google. But the links between the Google layer and the microprocessor are all abstracted by the underlying operating system, so the linkage is just not there.

However, I am quite pleased by the Google announcement, quite enthused by it because it’s another step on the road to fuel the growth of smartphones, and smartphones for us represent a lot more royalty when a consumer goes and buys one. So if a consumer is going to go buy a smartphone now because it’s a Google phone and that consumer wasn’t going to buy one anyway, then that’s great news for us.

But apart from that sort of general enthusiasm on how the Google phone will obviously stimulate further growth in the smartphone market, I can’t be more specifically excited.

IDGNS: In a recent interview, Symbian CEO Nigel Clifford called Google’s Android just “another Linux platform,” indicating it’s not much of a threat. Do you agree?

East: I suppose technically he’s right. It’s based on Linux, but I’d say it’s a little bit more than that because Google is clearly steering it in a direction. Also, it’s got the Google brand attached to it, and in this day and age, if you attach the Google brand to a sweet wrapper, it’s got some value, hasn’t it?

I think what he’s saying is that If you’re going to build a phone operating system, then there’s a lot of work involved between launching a phone operating system and having hundreds of millions of them out in the market. Symbian’s first operating system running on ARM was launched back in 1996 or 1997, and here we are 10 years later and Symbian has a majority share of the smartphone market. There’s a lot of water under the bridge, it takes a lot of R&D to get there. I think he’s just pointing that out.

IDGNS: What is ARM’s place in the iPhone?

The iPhone is based on ARM11, and things like Google phones and iPhones do create demand for high performance devices. I think it’s inevitable if the iPhone continues to be as successful as it appears to have been on launch, there will be iPhone II, III, whatever. And hopefully, if we do our job right, then they will be based on future ARM products.

The ARM11 is a microprocessor we first delivered to semiconductor licensees in 2002, so it’s actually quite elderly technology.

IDGNS: Makers of computer microprocessors such as Intel and AMD have focused more and more on emerging markets and low-cost laptop PCs. What’s your view on this market and how might the mobile phone side of the tech industry compete against the computer guys?

East: The ARM view is that those sorts of markets are probably better served by something evolved from the mobile phone end than something evolved from the PC end. Another thing you have to remember is that the ARM architecture itself was originally developed for a PC, the Acorn PC, and it had some good differentiation compared to the IBM standard PC. The Acorn had a fixed ROM (read-only memory), so the OS was inviolate, no viruses because it couldn’t get any because it was in ROM, and there was no fan because it was in ROM, and the processor was very power efficient. And we’ve taken that architecture and applied years of R&D expenditure to it and it’s still very applicable. If you wanted to build a product which you could call a computer, you could build it from the phone end.

There are Linux-based computers out there that are based on ARMs and behave in a simpler way than the PC, and if that’s the way the market evolves then we’re more than happy. If the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) wants to evolve from the mobile phone end of things, we’d welcome that. There are a handful of products out there that look a lot like the old Acorn PCs that are very robust.

The reason developing devices from the mobile phone end is better is that because of its low power heritage, the battery is an easier concept to deal with. I can have more power, a longer battery life, a lighter battery. … I can have more reliable products because I don’t have to have a fan to go wrong, I can have more reliable products because it doesn’t get as hot and therefore it’s cheaper as well, fundamentally a lot cheaper. Therefore reliability, low cost, are sort of automatic derivatives from the mobile phone.

Another automatic derivative is connectivity. And the sort of built-in disposition of the designers to build a communication device rather than a display-based device. I know PCs are almost all connected to the Internet now, but the connectivity is bolted on, it’s not part of the design.

IDGNS: What’s one technology trend that you would like to see take off next year or within the next few years?

East: If we had many more ARMs in washing machines next year, I’d be very happy with that. If you think about it, washing machines are not that boring. In 2006, there were 10 billion electric motors shipped in the world, and 90 percent of those electric motors could be twice as efficient as they were if they were changed into induction motors which you controlled by the induction field around the motors. But to do that kind of control, you need a complex control algorithm and for that you need to add something like a 32-bit microcontroller. So we see a huge potential for ARM in boring applications like enabling 90 percent of the world’s electric motors.

[Adding a microcontroller makes] it twice as efficient, so that’s a lot of energy savings. We deploy electric motors everywhere. You don’t think about it, but they’re everywhere. We believe the energy issue is an important question. With people in so many countries, including emerging markets, deploying so many items with electric motors in them, we think that’s an important issue.

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