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‘The Everything Blueprint’ by James Ashton describes Arm’s Cambridge odyssey to power digital age

If you want to know how the world’s most successful semiconductor designer bestrides the world stage, you need only read The Everything Blueprint, James Ashton’s recently published history of Arm.

It will help you understand the intricate network of technology companies that hold the world’s electronic keys in their hands.

James Ashton, 'The Everything Blueprint', published by Hodder & Staughton
James Ashton, 'The Everything Blueprint', published by Hodder & Staughton

Subtitled ‘The Microchip Design that Changed the World’, James – one-time city editor and executive editor at the Evening Standard – tells the story of how Arm emerged haphazardly from Acorn Computers and became the world-beating go-to company for computer chip design.

The story is a must-read because it showcases not just the start of a single company, but the beginning of a whole new way of doing business – way less confrontational, far more collegiate. After Arm, businesses always need to keep the bigger picture in mind. And it turns out the bigger picture is very big indeed.

“The microchip stakes a claim among centuries-old breakthroughs – making fire, handwriting, the wheel, the compass – that have transformed how humans live and learn,” we read.

The incredible pace of development takes place so rapidly, The Everything Blueprint reads like a thriller. For many years Arm was the David to Intel’s Goliath, and how that was turned around is both elegant and enthralling. The author has a great eye for snappy sentences, such as: “The ISA (instruction set architecture) is a kind of digital-era Ten Commandments.”

'The Everything Blueprint' by James Ashton, published by Hodder & Staughton, is now on sale
'The Everything Blueprint' by James Ashton, published by Hodder & Staughton, is now on sale

What happened was a combination of factors. Intel – brash, super-confident, hyped-up – came up with the ‘Intel Inside’ slogan which worked, up to a point. What Arm did was work behind the scenes, selling semiconductor designs to hardware manufacturers so they could play around with them in-house before sending the design off to a foundry. That way they could add their own features, take ownership of the design. No one knew where Arm designs had been used – they didn’t need to know. Everyone was happy, and no one got egg on their face.

“In the battle for mobile leadership, a loose alliance of developers had won out over Intel’s imperial invincibility,” writes James.

There’s a bit of luck too. It turned out the journey of diversification from being a smartphone chip designer to a laptop chip designer was easier for Arm than it was for Intel, which was switching from laptops into smartphones. And joining forces with Apple during Steve Jobs’ historic second tenure was incredible for both parties.

By the time anyone noticed, Arm was way down the road, and surfed the Softbank deal and the NVIDIA saga with aplomb.

“By creating an industry standard, just as its creators had dreamed of in 1990, Arm had put itself at the centre of the ultimate ecosystem,” writes James.

But – and it’s hard to overstate this – Arm has achieved its mission many times over by not making any serious enemies.

One of many hugely insightful remarks made by contributors to this book is Peter Wennink, chief executive at ASML, who puts it thus: “Powerful partnerships are not founded on power, but on capability, trust, transparency, reliability and a fair share of risks and rewards.”

'The Everything Blueprint' by James Ashton is published by Hodder & Staughton
'The Everything Blueprint' by James Ashton is published by Hodder & Staughton

As the story moves beyond creation mode into global player territory, the author outlines the challenges the sector faces. The first is the possibility – actually a policy – that China will invade Taiwan. “US intelligence believes that Xi Jinping, China’s leader, has ordered the country’s military to be ready by 2027 to annex Taiwan,” according to a recent report.

This would, as the author explains, mess with the world’s foundries – the colossally expensive machinery that manufactures the chip designs. With Taiwan producing more than 60 per cent of the world’s semiconductors and over 90 per cent of the most advanced ones, the US is, as James explains, now building its own foundries – and facing considerable challenges.

Another threat to Arm described in The Everything Blueprint is the tiny number of atoms now available inside the chip for further features. A semiconductor chip today is like a tower block that has had endless floors added, with ever longer and wider balconies, until the whole structure can’t take any more development. He suggests that maybe Moore’s Law – that the number of transistors that can be fabricated on an integrated circuit doubles every two years – may now be breaking down, flattening the growth curve for smartphones, laptops, tablets – and Arm’s profitability.

Time will tell. Meanwhile, Arm’s IPO has been a huge success. But deep inside The Everything Blueprint, James Ashton – who has had incredible access to get this astonishing book into print – quoted an Arm insider on the rationale for Arm choosing the Nasdaq route back for its second IPO.

Cambridge Future Tech Founder's Day at The Bradfield Centre, Jamie Urquhart in conversation with Jamie Owen. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cambridge Future Tech Founder's Day at The Bradfield Centre, Jamie Urquhart in conversation with Jamie Owen. Picture: Keith Heppell

“We saw being on Nasdaq like being at the Olympics,” said Jonathan Brooks, who became Arm’s finance director in March 1995, “while being on the LSE was more like being at the Commonwealth Games.”

Arm’s teams really do think further ahead than the rest of the pack, and The Everything Blueprint takes you on that incredible journey.

- The Cambridge launch of The Everything Blueprint: The Microchip Design that Changed the World, by James Ashton (Hodder & Stoughton, £25) will take place at The Bradfield Centre on October 11, with author James Ashton in session with former Arm COO Jamie Urquhart, hosted by the Cambridge Independent’s business correspondent, Mike Scialom. Register for your free place here.

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