WHEN ARM CEO Warren East steps down in July after 19 years at the firm, he will have overseen the company expand from a relatively small designer of embedded chips into the provider of the architecture that powers the mobile world and beyond.
ARM's roots go back to Acorn Computers, maker of the 1980s BBC Micro home computer. Seeking a capable processor to power their next generation of computers, they decided to design their own, and that resulted in the first ARM chips.
When ARM was spun out as a separate firm, it began to focus on using the low transistor count of its architecture to produce power-efficient designs, ideal for mobile and embedded applications, and one of the first customers was Apple, which used an ARM chip to power its Newton PDA.
ARM chips also found a home in mobile phones due to their low power consumption, and when East became CEO of the firm in 2001, ARM based designs had already started to be used in early smartphones to drive applications as well as the network stack.
During East's tenure, ARM has expanded through partnerships with chipmakers such as Samsung, Texas Instruments, Nvidia and Qualcomm that take ARM's architecture and designs and use them to produce their own processors.
"In 2001 ARM had one processor product line found mainly in mobile phones. Now ARM provides the broadest portfolio of technologies in the industry, used by more than 300 semiconductor customers in nearly nine billion chips last year," ARM chairman John Buchanan noted in a statement announcing East's departure.
ARM's approach thus stands in contrast to those of other chip vendors such as Intel, which keep design, manufacturing and sales of their products in-house.
As a consequence, while ARM's revenue has grown to $913m with East at the helm, this is dwarfed by Intel's revenue for last year of $53.3bn.
However, it's doubtful that a small UK firm could really have taken on the giants of Silicon Valley head on, and ARM's approach of working with a partner ecosystem to meet the needs of device vendors has led to a thriving community of engineers and developers that together dominate the mobile chip industry.
During East's tenure, ARM has also seen the opportunity to expand its architecture into new territory. With tablets such as Apple's iPad family, ARM chips have made the leap into the workplace and Microsoft has even gone so far as to create Windows RT, an ARM version of its Windows 8 platform.
Recently, the growth of datacentres and concerns over the rising cost of the energy being consumed by these has generated interest in using the more power-efficient ARM architecture in servers.
New developments of the ARM architecture are now supporting many-core chips and adding capabilities such as 64-bit processing to enable ARM licensees to target these applications, with new partners such as Calxeda combining ARM cores with an on-chip switch fabric to enable the interconnection of thousands of chips.
The company is thus taking on chip giant Intel on its own turf, although it seems likely that there is room enough for both companies in the burgeoning server market, with ARM fitting into a fairly niche segment inside the datacentre for the near future.
Although East's departure comes out of the blue, industry reaction to the move seems to be generally positive, with some analysts regarding it as an opportunity for new blood to take ARM forward.
His successor Simon Segars is president of ARM with responsibility for the company's intellectual property divisions, and is an ARM veteran like East.
"The board is delighted to have someone of Simon Segars' experience and calibre within ARM to appoint to the role of CEO," said Buchanan.
"Following an extensive review of candidates worldwide, Simon's proven technology expertise and management skills across a range of senior executive roles make him an excellent chief executive candidate and highly qualified to take the company forward."
If Segars has the same sort of success in the coming years that East did during his tenure, the ARM board certainly will be proven right, but it won't be an easy task. µ