Tony Fadell, who as the initial iPhone project leader arguably made one of the most important chip decisions in the technology business, joined the board of directors of Arm on Thursday to help the processor designer expand from smartphones to even more corners of our digital lives.
Fadell's push to use the Arm family of chips in the iPod and iPhone cemented Arm's position on the ground floor of the smartphone business. Arm processors are now penetrating the personal computer market thanks to Apple's M1 and M2 processors and data centers with chip designs like Amazon's Graviton.
In an exclusive interview, Fadell said he expects his experience designing complete products will help UK-based Arm steer its processor designs.
"I can bring a more system level mentality... I think about the end customer," said Fadell, now a principal at investment and consulting firm Build Collective, which until Thursday was named Future Shape. He understands how a chip combines with memory, power supplies, sensors and other components to make a full product, he said.
He joins Arm during a crucial time. The company hopes its processor designs will fuel a dramatic increase in the number and importance of digital devices in our lives. That'll show in devices like autonomous vehicles, smartwatches and security video cameras and in online services like the digital assistants built into smart speakers.
Fadell picked Arm chips for the iPod digital music players but had to push harder to use them in the iPhone since former Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs had favored Intel chips, Fadell said. After Apple, Fadell again picked Arm designs for thermostat maker Nest, a smart home product company he founded that Google later acquired.
The newly allied Arm Chief Executive Rene Haas and Fadell shared the stage Thursday at the Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal. "Tony's deep technical and product experience will be a great asset to myself and a fantastic complement to the board," Haas said in a statement.
Arm's core value: low power
Arm designs are successful in phones, but the company is expanding aggressively to personal computers, servers, smart homes, internet-of-things devices and cars.
That expansion has done well so far, but Intel promises more competitive next-gen server and PC products, and a new RISC-V chip technology movement is exerting new pressure on Arm's position in smaller devices. At the same time, many new processing jobs like autonomous vehicles rely on artificial intelligence technology, and Arm's AIi accelerators are a weak point in its technology suite.
The biggest reason Fadell liked Arm designs over alternatives is its focus on low power consumption. Performance couldn't come at the cost of bad battery life. With power now a major constraint on PCs and servers too, Arm's low-power focus is even more important, Fadell said.
"Arm was the first processor to really be low power," Fadell said. "It was always the fundamental DNA of the Arm to make sure low power and performance were always kept in balance."
Arm after Nvidia's acquisition failure
Arm licenses chip designs to companies like Qualcomm and technology to others like Apple who design their own processors. Graphics and AI chip giant Nvidia tried to acquire Arm for $40 billion from investor Softbank but abandoned the deal this year after regulatory resistance. Now Arm plans an initial public offering.
With the deal dead and Nvidia's funding gone, some have worried Arm has the resources to pursue its ambitions. Fadell himself shared those concerns and asked about them when Haas invited him to join, he said.
"He convinced me that I should join the board because there's some very creative things they're working on," Fadell said. "I can't say anything more than that. But I'm very excited about the next chapter."