Computex 2014: ARM shifts focus to wearables, Internet of Things

ARM is known for the Cortex-A processors that power more than 95 percent of the world’s smartphones and tablets. But at this year's Computex the company is focusing on the tiny Cortex-M designs well-suited for sensors and smartwatches.

ARM Chief Marketing Officer Ian Drew (left) and Noel Hurley, Deputy GM of CPUs, at the company's Computex press conference.

ARM is known for its Cortex-A designs in the application processors that power more than 95 percent of the world’s smartphones and tablets. The company has rode the mobile wave growing annual sales from $500 million in 2007, when the iPhone was introduced, to north of $1 billion today.

But at its annual Computex press conference, ARM chose instead to focus on the tiny Cortex-M design that powers embedded processors in gadgets like sensors and smartwatches. ARM’s Chief Marketing Office Ian Drew noted that this is already a huge market--with more than a billion connected devices--but it is where the company expects the see the next wave of growth in coming years.

“This expansive growth that we are seeing is probably the start of a revolution, not the end,” Drew said.

Despite this, ARM did not announce any new designs at Computex. The only real news was the establishment of a new design center at the Hsinchu Science Park here in Taiwan that will be focused on the next generation of M-class cores for the Internet of Things and wearables. ARM said it is already recruiting engineers for a design team that will initially number around 40 to 50 people. Taiwan joins ARM’s three existing design centers in Cambridge, UK; Austin, Texas; and Sophia, a technology park in southern France.

Although numerous semiconductor companies are chasing these new markets, including Intel , ARM is in a unique position. Noel Hurley, the deputy general manager of ARM’s CPU Group, said that over time the company has built up a tremendous range of application processors for mobile, embedded processors for IoT and graphics processors. This enables customers to choose just the right mix of performance and power that they need, and quickly develop chips tailored for everything from to specific demands for everything from tiny sensors to servers.

These days power is measured down to nanowatts, Hurley said, and new markets like the IoT will require devices with chips like "specks of dust" and battery life measured in years. For example, Freescale’s KL03 microcontroller, which is based on a Cortex-M0+ core, has an entire package size that measures only 2mm by 1.3 mm. To put that in perspective, here’s what the chip looks like on a golf ball:


In addition, ARM’s success in mobile gives it a big platform to expand into these new markets. This year ARM expects that more than 1.3 billion smartphones will be shipped. Mobile devices use Cortex-A designs, but they also increasingly use Cortex-M cores, in connectivity chips and touchscreen controllers, and Cortex-R cores for real-time processing in 3G and 4G radios. The iPhone 5s, Samsung Galaxy S5 and Motorola’s Moto X all use Cortex-M cores to implement new features such as “always listening.” Since ARM devices use a common architecture, this creates a massive hardware and software ecosystem, which can easily be extended to new devices such as smartwatches.

ARM has already shipped more than 16 billion Cortex-M processors. “The mission is to get millions of developers working on these cores,” Hurley said.

Drew also talked briefly about ARM’s other growth market: microservers . Last year, Drew predicted that 2014 would be the year this would start to take off, and while progress has been a bit slower than expected, he isn’t backing down. “I still believe that,” he said. “In the second half of this year, you will start to see major announcements of people using ARM-based servers in data centers.”