Tony Fadell, who as the original iPhone project manager made arguably one of the most important chip decisions in the tech industry, has joined Arm’s board. Thursday to help the processor designer expand into new corners of our digital lives.
Fadell’s push to use the Arm family of chips in the iPod and iPhone cemented Arm’s position on the ground floor of the smartphone business. Arm processors are now entering the personal computer market thanks to Apple’s M1 and M2 processors and data centers with chip designs like Amazon’s Graviton.
In an exclusive interview, Fadell said he expects his experience designing complete products to help British company Arm guide its processor designs.
“I can bring a more system-level mentality…I’m thinking about the end customer,” said Fadell, now a director at investment and advisory firm Build Collective, which until Thursday was called Future Shape. He understands how a chip combines with memory, power supplies, sensors and other components to create a complete product, he said.
He joins Arm at a crucial time. The company hopes its processor designs will fuel a dramatic increase in the number and importance of digital devices in our lives. This will be seen in devices like self-driving vehicles, smartwatches and video security cameras and in online services like digital assistants built into smart speakers.
Fadell chose Arm chips for iPod digital music players, but had to push harder to use them in the iPhone since former Apple CEO Steve Jobs preferred Intel chips, Fadell said. After Apple, Fadell again chose Arm designs for thermostat maker Nest, a smart home products company he founded and later acquired by Google.
Arm Chief Executive Rene Haas and Fadell plan to detail the new position later Thursday at the Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal. “Tony’s deep technical and product experience will be a great asset to me and a fantastic addition to the board,” Haas said in a statement.
Arm Core Value: Low Power
Arm designs are successful in phones, but the company is aggressively expanding into personal computers, servers, smart homes, Internet of Things devices and cars.
That expansion has worked well so far, but Intel is promising more competitive next-gen servers and PCs, and a new RISC-V chip technology move is putting further pressure on Arm’s position in small devices. At the same time, many new processing works, such as autonomous vehicles, rely on artificial intelligence technology, and Arm’s AIi accelerators are a weak point in its technology suite.
The main reason Fadell liked the Arm designs over the alternatives is its emphasis on low power consumption. Performance couldn’t come at the cost of poor battery life. With power now a major constraint on PCs and servers as well, Arm’s low power consumption is even more important, Fadell said.
“Arm was the first processor to be truly low-power,” Fadell said. “It’s always been the fundamental DNA of the arm to make sure low power and performance were always in balance.”
Arm after failed Nvidia acquisition
Arm licenses chip design to companies like Qualcomm and technology to others like Apple who design their own processors. Graphics and AI chip giant Nvidia attempted to acquire Arm for $40 billion from investor Softbank, but scrapped the deal this year after regulatory resistance. Now Arm is planning an initial public offering.
With the deal dead and Nvidia’s funding ending, some fear Arm has the resources to pursue its ambitions. Fadell himself shared those concerns and asked about them when Haas invited him to join, he said.
“He convinced me that I should join the board because there are some very creative things they’re working on,” Fadell said. “I can’t say more than that. But I’m very excited about the next chapter.”