Look at your phone or tablet, most will say Made in China, Korea or Taiwan, some will say Designed in California, but what about the technology at the very heart of the device? Where were the creators of that based? Silicone Valley? Shenzhen?
More than likely they were based in the UK.
Despite the likes of Jeremy Clarkson implying that if it’s designed or made in Britain then it’ll inevitably go wrong our nation has produced some of the best minds in technology, architecture, literature and science… in the world.
Most PCs, even Apple Macs run on chips that are designed to be compatible with the Intel processors that powered the earliest IBM PC and their dependents. Mobiles though need less power-hungry processors and this is where the Brits come in.
Back in the eighties Acorn (who had created the BBC Micro computer to accompany a pioneering TV show intended to teach computing to the public, and one of the first computers I learnt on) created the Acorn Archimedes which used a RISC processor – which basically uses a simplified set of instructions to run programs which allows for powerful processors using less actual power – perfect for mobile devices which was why Apple chose the processor for their Newton handheld and were one of the three partners that formed ARM. Our school had an Archimedes and it seemed like a glimpse of the future compared to the BBCs and PCs. We had no idea.
Since then ARM has developed the core designs that they licence to manufacturers such as Samsung who build the chips that drive iPhones, Galaxy SIIIs, HTC One Xs, LG Nexus 4s, Nexus 7s, Kindle Fires… You get the idea.
The other company that has done the same with graphics chips is Imagination Technologies. In the early nineties Hossein Yassaie joined the company and decided that computer graphics were the future, shortly afterwards he decided that people would one day want to do everything they could do on a PC on a mobile – a vision that seemed impossible to many at the time due to limits of the available technology. However, like ARM, Imagination’s technology had lower power demands. As smartphones have taken off, so has demand for both ARM and Imagination’s designs.
Their strength lies in the demand for new phones, the latest, faster, brighter, better, smarter every year; chipmakers couldn’t each dedicate the kind of design teams that the British firms have to such projects and so licensing from these independents is the perfect solution, and of course having so much design talent and experience in just two companies helps to ensure constant innovation to keep us all equipped for the future.
[Also BBC News]