ARM says it's ready for the iPhone

With more than 90 percent of smart-phone market already using ARM-based chips, CEO Warren East loves all the attention on iPhone.

Some may be tired of Apple's iPhone already, a week before it launches, but Warren East does not fall into that category.

The chief executive of mobile-processor designer ARM thinks that the iPhone will spur the adoption of smart phones by consumers who have found the current offerings too clunky or hard to use. With his company's designs inside something like 95 percent of all the smart phones in the world, that would be good for business.

East is too savvy to directly comment on whether Apple is using a chip based on one of ARM's designs, which ARM licenses to companies that actually make the chips. But ARM is by far the dominant architecture used in this world, almost the same way the x86 architecture dominates the PC industry.

ARM has been of late, making a push into areas like digital cameras, printers and digital set-top boxes. But the company is famous within the tech industry because of its unique position within the mobile-handset world, which is already much bigger than the PC industry and is still growing at staggering rates. East recently sat down with CNET to discuss the state of ARM, as well as Apple's first attempt at playing inside his realm.

Q: So the core business still remains the mobile-phone business.
East: From a business point of view, we don't really distinguish between the two. At our level, a core that is good for a mobile phone is also good for all the other products I mentioned.

Do you see that as something that will change in the future, as these devices become more specialized?
East: Not really. One could get more and more specialized, but our business model is that we don't do that. We license intellectual property to semiconductor companies, and if we start doing very customized things for a particular product, then there is no room for our licensees to differentiate and compete. It doesn't make good business sense for us to do that.

I'm slightly generalizing because we do have a dozen or more different flavors of our microprocessor cores. Some cores, people will license from us for use in deeply embedded microcontroller-type applications, things like Cortex-M3. Things like Cortex-R4 finds a lot of use in things like hard-disk drive controllers and will find it's way into printers and those type of things.

Then there are the application processors, the things like the 926, the 1176, the Cortex-A8, and they're developed to support heavyweight operating systems like Microsoft (Windows), Linux, Palm.

MP3 players is a category of devices where there were lots of ARMs shipped for years, and then Apple came along with the iPod, and in a space of 18 months to two years, that whole thing was transformed.

Mac OS?
East: (Laughs) You'll have to talk to Apple about Mac OS.

With the iPhone coming up, we've been talking a lot about the future of mobile devices. What's your take on all that?
East: When they (Apple) launched the iPhone, they said (they expected to sell) 8 million units, something like that. Some people asked us, why are you getting particularly excited about that because, you know, there's a billion phones (sold a year), and 8 million isn't going to make any difference.

I'd say, "Well, it isn't just Apple's contribution directly, it's the contribution that they make through gearing." If you look at what they did to MP3 players, MP3 players is a category of devices where there were lots of ARMs shipped for years, and then Apple came along with the iPod, and in a space of 18 months to two years, that whole thing was transformed. Then MP3 players are being shipped in volumes about 10 times more than they were being shipped before that.

I think it's that sort of second-order effect that we'll see in the smart-phone space with the iPhone; it's actually stimulating lots of other people to go and bring out their own devices.

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