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ARM: Tudor Brown says chip-maker should remain independent

BBC Technology 06 Aug 2020 12:44
ARM montageImage copyright Getty Images/ARM

ARM's ex-president has warned the sale of the UK-based chip designer to another semiconductor company could put the wider tech sector "in jeopardy".

Tudor Brown's comments follow reports that ARM's current owner, Japan's Softbank, is in advanced talks to sell the firm to Nvidia, a US firm best known for its graphics chips.

The Nikkei has reported that Taiwanese chip manufacturer TSMC has also expressed interest.

Softbank declined to comment.

Mr Brown was involved with ARM for 29 years.

He co-founded the Cambridge-based company in 1983, and served as its chief technology officer, chief operating officer and president - among other jobs - before stepping down in 2012.

Four years later, the business was acquired by Softbank in a £24.3bn deal.

Image copyright Tudor Brown

"[But] it would be very bad news for ARM to be sold to any semiconductor company.

ARM creates computer-chip designs that others then customise to their own ends. It also develops instruction sets, which define how software controls processors.

In addition, the PC and computer server industries are also shifting away from Intel and AMD's x86 chip technology to ARM's solutions.

Nvidia is among the many companies that pay a licence to use ARM's technologies in its own chips, and there are concerns that its acquisition of the business would create a conflict of interest.

"TSMC is a very powerful company and would tip the level playing field, making it much harder for companies wanting to use other foundries - such as UMC, SMIC or Global - or companies with their own fabrication plants such as Samsung and Fujitsu," he explained.

US sanctions

The BBC reported on Monday that Hermann Hauser had claimed the sale of ARM to Nvidia would be a disaster, and hoped the UK government would encourage an alternative outcome.

Mr Brown said he would also prefer the company to either be listed back on to a stock market or sold to an unrelated business. But he questioned how much influence ministers could have at this stage.

"There is some sort of binding agreement given by Softbank to increase headcount in the UK, which could be upheld I guess.

However, he added that the wider industry would benefit from keeping ARM as a UK-based company.

Last year, there was a furore when ARM briefly suspended business with Huawei while it examined the degree to which it was affected by US sanctions.

With the Trump administration now targeting a wider range of Chinese firms, one danger would be that the companies judge it too risky to continue basing their chips on ARM's technologies. That could encourage them to shift over to a rival platform called Risc-V, which is open source but currently less developed.

"This is important as I believe it means ARM is not subject to US export laws.

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