The right to bear ARM

As far as I know, I have used nothing today that runs on ARM architecture.

I’m not carrying a cell phone, nor have I used a handheld. I did surf the Web today, so the possibility is still there. At this point, it is becoming very hard to conduct business with IT equipment where ARM is not

part of the picture, however hidden. That’s why this is a good time to drag the firm back into the spotlight.

When you talk about the processor wars, you’re usually talking about AMD and Intel. If you’re being specific, you’re comparing Pentiums to Athlons. You would also be talking about production glitches and wildly fluctuating market share. Unless, of course, you were talking about ARM, which for last couple of years has been nothing short of an upwardly mobile success story.

It didn’t look that good for ARM in 1998, when Intel received approval from the United States Federal Trade Commission to license the rights for customizing its flagship processor design, StrongARM. This news would have gained greater attention had it not been overshadowed by so many other major IT transactions. These included a deal whereby Intel bought rights to provide foundry services for multiple generations of the Alpha, followed by the record-breaking takeover of Digital Equipment Corp. by Compaq. There was a possibility here that StrongARM would be lost in the shuffle. Intel did not do much to clear the air, promising a list of customers as soon as FTC approval had been granted which never appeared. Like the Alpha, which Compaq ended up frittering away until it got sold off to Intel last year, StrongARM seemed doomed to neglect.

In its own quiet way, however, Cambridge, U.K.-based Advanced RISC Machines has made itself a mobile computing heavyweight. Microsoft gave it a big boost with the release of PocketPC 2002, which stipulated that devices running the handheld OS use an ARM-compatible chip. More recently ARM formed an alliance with Sun Microsystems to create mobile computing standards. The long-awaited move by Palmsource — Palm’s new OS subsidiary — to port its applications and include a full 32-bit ARM architecture in its next release seems to solidify its position.

As a result, ARM has been flourishing financially while other technology companies have languished. It reported a 42 per cent revenue jump in the third quarter of last year, with profits up 46 per cent.

Though there is still some competition in this segment, including NEC’s VR-Series and Hitachi’s SH line, StrongARM — and by extension, Intel — is the best bet for the long term. Developers have proven extremely loyal to ARM’s designs, and though it initially seemed reluctant to make its move, a Palmsource executive told me yesterday that the company was impressed with its product roadmap. As the predominant ARM partner, Intel enjoys a considerable amount of trust in the enterprise space, which will be an advantage for ARM as devices are used in more corporate environments.

On Wednesday a young firm called Alchemy was bought by AMD. Alchemy’s PDA processors are reportedly faster than StrongARM, and the takeover represents the transition of a long-standing rivalry with Intel to a new plateau. But a market upset to displace ARM’s stranglehold would take black magic, not alchemy. As the mobile device market evolves, StrongARM has never looked so buff.

sschick@plesman.com

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