Hey, you! Do you want to control the future of basically every mobile device on Earth, and even some laptops and desktops? Have I got a deal for you! ARM Limited is for sale, the company in charge of the ubiquitous ARM CPU architecture that powers the majority of devices that run on a battery. It will only cost a few tens of billions of dollars. Bloomberg has two reports on the matter, one stating that Nvidia is interested in buying ARM and another saying that Apple isn’t.
ARM is currently owned by SoftBank group, a giant Japanese holding company previously featured on Ars for buying Boston Dynamics, buying Sprint, and buying stakes in Uber and GM’s Cruise. SoftBank bought ARM for $32 billion in 2016, and since then, ARM has only gotten more powerful. ARM doesn’t manufacture chips; instead, it sells IP based on the ARM CPU architecture in the form of its in-house Cortex CPU designs or licenses to design whatever you want using ARM’s instruction set.
In 2016, SoftBank described ARM as its prized possession, with SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son describing it as “the center of the center of SoftBank.” In the coronavirus era, SoftBank has been hit hard by the tanking valuations of Uber and WeWork, along with the bankruptcy of OneWeb, and now it’s willing to sell ARM to raise money.
As for SoftBank and Apple, Bloomberg says, “The two firms had preliminary discussions, but Apple isn’t planning to pursue a bid. Arm’s licensing operation would fit poorly with Apple’s hardware-focused business model. There may also be regulatory concerns about Apple owning a key licensee that supplies so many rivals.”
Apple’s situation is probably the case for most companies with an attachment to ARM. ARM is so widespread that buying it will be a regulatory nightmare, and even the most lenient rubber-stamp regulators around the world must shudder at the idea of an existing ARM licensee buying ARM. Apple is famously transitioning its entire Mac lineup from Intel to in-house ARM chips, and it has the cash to buy ARM. Would any government approve Apple gaining that much power over the Android ecosystem, though? Qualcomm is another company closely tied to ARM, but it is already a convicted monopolist in many countries thanks to its power over the modem and ARM SoC market for smartphones. Google has the cash, too, but it already makes regulators nervous thanks to its control over the smartphone industry via Android.
SoftBank was a great home for ARM since it let the company be neutral—SoftBank didn’t make devices or sell chips. Many companies with an interest in ARM would create a huge conflict of interest.
Nvidia is an ARM licensee, but it is not a major competitor in the smartphone industry. Nvidia’s chips are sold on the strength of its GPUs, and the company’s biggest design wins (really, you could say “only design wins”) are the Nintendo Switch, the AR-focused Magic Leap headset, and its own Nvidia Shield Android TV box. With it being mostly shut out of the mobile SoC market by Qualcomm, Nvidia has started to focus on car hardware. The company’s latest SoC is called “Orion” and seems exclusively designed for self-driving cars, where its strong GPUs can assist in all sorts of computer vision compute. With such a small chunk of the market, Nvidia might be one of the few ARM licensees that could squeak by regulatory approval.
If Nvidia doesn’t pull the trigger and ARM does prove “too big to buy,” there are some other options. The original “ARM is for sale” report from The Wall Street Journal mentioned that “it is possible SoftBank will ultimately choose to do nothing” and figure out a different way to deal with its money issues. The idea of an IPO for ARM has also been floated by SoftBank in the past, and this solution would also solve the regulatory issues surrounding the sale to a tech company.