Cambridge launch at The Bradfield Centre for publication of Arm book
The Everything Blueprint, a just-published book about the Arm story, was launched at The Bradfield Centre last week with author James Ashton in conversation with Arm co-founder and former COO Jamie Urquhart.
In a fireside chat sponsored by the Dassault Systèmes and Solid Solutions, and hosted by the Cambridge Independent, James spoke about the book and how it came about, and then quizzed Jamie about how things described from the outside had played out on the inside.
The result was a fascinating insight into the start-up process, and a window into what happens when a company’s business model becomes so global and the technology so critical that it starts to have geopolitical implications.
James described himself as “a writer about tech, not a tech writer” and the former executive editor and city editor of the Evening Standard and added that “Cambridge is about deep tech, and I’m a shallow tech person”.
The contrast with self-confessed geek Jamie Urquhart was fascinating. Jamie described the moment in 1990 when 12 architecture designers decided to leave the flagging Cambridge computer hardware company Acorn Computers and incorporate Arm. The 12 included Jamie and John Biggs – who was in the audience – who Jamie introduced as “Arm’s de facto historian as well as being a chip designer”.
“We could see the writing on the wall, so we decided to take the bull by the horns,” continued Jamie. “We felt proud of what we’d achieved” – but they all felt there was more to come. “We felt it was unfinished business,” was how Jamie put it, but the fledgling company didn’t seem to be making much progress – though the crucial decision to pursue licenses rather than royalties had been made.
“When the idea of a joint venture company was set up, that was the moment when we thought: ‘This is going to happen’,” says Jamie. And while existing clients weren’t happy with the new licensing options available to Arm customers – “Plessey were looking to see if they could sue for breach of contract” – others were delighted.
“There were phone calls from Samsung and other customers asking ‘What can you do for us?’”
Nor was it solely the technology that was innovative, so was the style of doing business in a collaborative rather than a competitive fashion – though Intel’s challenge brought out the fighting spirit in Jamie, who had shifted from a tech role to a sales role (and was loving it).
“Was there a worry about Intel?” asked James.
“I’m not at the stage where I’m thinking ‘business is war’ [Atari founder Jack Tramiel’s favourite saying] but if you don’t win the business then your competitors win the business and that’s your market share gone. I don’t want to say Intel was the enemy, but it was a form of war.”
The Q&A included an enquiry about what might happen if China invades Taiwan, which is where the world’s most competent semiconductor foundries are based. Jamie said that the Americans have been making progress with starting their own foundries, but the UK hadn’t followed suit, partly because the investment required is so vast. And also because the skill sets involved, says Jamie, who urges the UK government to improve education and skills training throughout the UK.
Franck Courbon, founder of Ethicronics, who attended the event, said: “As Jamie is giving back to the Cambridge community, I have had the chance to learn from him multiple times: it is always a pleasure. Multiple anecdotes and key insights/facts were shared with the audience from ‘team talking around a curry’, ‘all doing a SWOT analysis of the business’, ‘the history and positions of the likes of Texas Instruments and Apple’ and ‘the compulsory press release’.”
Mark Tooley, Solidworks programme manager at Software Solutions, said: “We were delighted to support the launch of The Everything Blueprint from the heart of the UK’s tech capital, Cambridge.
“Dassault Systèmes and Solid Solutions, who together provide global innovation platforms and solutions to the manufacturing and technology industries, were proud sponsors of this event given the synergies between our companies.
“We are delighted that Arm chose our software tools as part of their product development process.”
Thanks to David’s Bookshop of Letchworth and Cambridge for the book signing opportunity.