Nvidia announced on Sunday evening that it has reached an agreement to acquire Arm Limited from SoftBank for a cool $40 billion.
In this age of headlines that use the b-word in place of nine zeros it’s easy to lose track, so you may be wondering, didn’t SoftBank just buy Arm? That was all the way back in July of 2016 to the tune of $32 billion. SoftBank is a holding company, so that deal didn’t ruffle any feathers, but this week’s move by Nvidia might.
Arm Limited is the company behind the ARM architecture, but they don’t actually produce the chips themselves, instead licensing them to other companies who pay a fee to use the core design and build their own chip around it. Nvidia licenses the ARM core for some of their chips, and with this deal they will be in a position to set terms for how their competitors may license the ARM core. The deal still needs regulatory approval so time will tell if this becomes a kink in the acquisition plan.
There’s a good chance that you’re reading this article on a device that contains an ARM processor because of its dominance in the smartphone and tablet market. Although less common in the laptop market, and nearly unheard of in the desktop market, the tide may be changing as Apple announced early in the summer that their Mac line will be moving to ARM.
Chances are you know the Nvidia name for their role as purveyors of fine graphics cards. They got a major boost as the world ramped up Bitcoin and other cryptocurrency mining hardware which early on was mainly based on the heavy lifting of graphics processors. But the company also has their eye on the ongoing wave of hardware targeting AI applications like computer vision. Nvidia’s line of Jetson boards, marketed for “next-generation autonomous machines”, all feature ARM cores.
Assuming the deal goes through without a hitch, what will be the fallout? Your guess is as good ours. There is certainly a conflict of interest in a company who competes in the ARM market owning the Arm. But it’s impossible to say what efforts they will make to firewall those parts of the business. Some might predict a mass exodus from the ARM ecosystem in favor of an open standard like RISC-V, but that is unlikely in the near-term. Momentum is difficult to overcome — look at how long it took ARM to climb that mountain and it was primarily the advent of a new mobile ecosystem lacking an established dominant player that let ARM thrive.
Grand venues of spectacle to entertain audiences has long been a part of history, but such tradition is highly problematic at the moment in the light of the pandemic. Some sports leagues are testing the waters with a soft restart by playing only to a broadcast audience, leaving the stadium empty. Many experiments are in progress trying to liven up an empty stadium and this is where SoftBank saw an opportunity: as a multinational conglomerate that has both a baseball team and a robotics division, they called a team of robots to cheer-leading duty.
Some clips of the cheerleading squad in action have started circulating. A few people may greet the sight with an indifferent shrug, but most tend to fall to an extreme: either finding them hilarious or react with horror. It is only natural to have a strong reaction to such a jarring sight.
Spot was only available for sale recently, and we admit this was not the type of task that came to our minds. Pepper has a longer track record and this is not Pepper’s first baseball game. The humanoid robot has been around long enough to raise questions about a robot’s role in society from unionization to sex work. We haven’t made much progress answering those questions, and now we have even more questions that the lightweight SoftBank Robotics press release (in Japanese) didn’t try to answer.
When people fret about “robots taking our jobs” the conversation doesn’t usually involve sports team cheerleaders, yet here we are. Welcome to the future.
$32 billion USD doesn’t buy as much as it used to. Unless you convert it into British Pounds, battered by the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, and make an offer for ARM Holdings. In that case, it will buy you our favorite fabless chip-design company.
The company putting up 32 Really Big Ones is Japan’s SoftBank, a diversified technology conglomerate. SoftBank is most visible as a mobile phone operator in Japan, but their business strategy lately has been latching on to emerging technology and making very good investments. (With the notable exception of purchasing the US’s Sprint Telecom, which they say is turning around.) Recently, they’ve focused on wireless and IoT. And now, they’re going to buy ARM.
We suspect that this won’t mean much for ARM in the long term. SoftBank isn’t a semiconductor firm, they just want a piece of the action. With the Japanese economy relatively stagnant, a strong Yen and a weak Pound, ARM became a bargain. (SoftBank said in a press release that the Brexit didn’t affect their decision, and that they would have bought ARM anyway. Still, you can’t blame them for waiting until after the vote, and the fallout, to make the purchase.) It certainly won’t hurt SoftBank’s robotics, IoT, or AI strategies to have a leading processor design firm in their stable, but we predict business as usual for those of us way downstream in the ARM ecosystem.
Thanks [Jaromir] for the tip!