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ARM Still Plays Leading Role in IIoT Devices

July 21, 2015

ARM is practically a household name in the world of mobile devices. The key to its success is also what makes it likely to profit in the Industrial IoT market.

The recent report on the IIoT from London-based analytics firm, Visiongain, mentioned recently here, included more than just general market predictions and aggregated data -- it also looked at two dozen key vendors within the IIoT space, including ARM Holdings PLC.

With its unusual hardware-free business model (ARM doesn’t make any “things”, it just designs them) the company is practically a household name in the world of mobile devices thanks to the processors that others produce, which have become so prevalent.  The key to its success in those fields are also what makes it likely to profit from the IIoT market, namely the relative simplicity and low power requirements of its reduced-instruction-set “RISC” designs, thus the company’s early name, Advanced RISC Machines.  Customers often license designs from ARM to manufacture as discrete elements or and integrate into System-on-Chip (SoC) designs.

Visionage mostly reported on ARM’s product line, which has continued to expand to include software development tools under the DS-5, RealView and Keil brands. In particular, Visionage pointed out the important recent announcement from ARM, Freescale, and IBM introducing a development board for Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) applications. The board combines ARM's mbed operating system, a development board from Freescale, and IBM's BlueMix cloud services. The Starter Kit currently offers Ethernet connectivity but ARM says future versions could include cellular, Wi-Fi and Thread™.

According to Visionage, ARM is in discussions with distributors to market the kit, which should also be able to work with existing, usually proprietary, real-time operations systems (RTOs).

Digging deeper than Visiongain’s company summary, another fairly recent report on the microprocessor control unit (MCU) market also puts ARM’s designs in the driver’s seat.  IC Insights says the 32-bit designs, in which ARM excels, have been displacing older 8-bit and 16-bit designs. 

And some companies, concerned about the future of the high-stakes IIoT market, are working hard to come up with ARM alternatives.  Indeed, a brutal market share battle might end up deciding the building blocks of the IIoT as much as any particular technical value. In the case of chip giant, Intel, Motley Fool reports  that between 2013 and 2014, the company poured more than a billion dollars into its mobile division widening losses from $3.1 billion to $4.2 billion. Most of the money went to an anti-ARM campaign which involved cutting sweetheart deals with manufacturers to adopt Intel products.  As Motley Fool notes, Intel loss on its mobile unit was more than triple annual ARM revenue of $1.29 billion last year.

So, just as big competitors changed the game for RIM and its Blackberry, ARM’s big lead as a player in IIoT could eventually evaporate if Intel and others stay as relentlessly focused on beating them down. In the meantime, though, millions of devices are happily operating under their design.

Alan R. Earls is a Boston-based writer focused on technology, business, and manufacturing — a field where he spent the earliest part of his career. He has written for publications and websites as diverse as The Boston GlobeComputerworld and Modern Infrastructure as well as Industry, The Manufacturer, and Today's Machining World.