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The Unlikely Tale of How ARM Came to Rule the World

An ARM-designed microprocessor chip
An ARM-designed microprocessor chipPhotograph by Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

This is a story about ARM Holdings, the mobile technology company. But before it gets going, here are a few things you need to know:
1. ARM is a company made up mostly of chip engineers. They design parts of chips—such as graphics and communication bits—and they design entire chips.
2. ARM sells these designs and licenses its chip architecture to dozens of companies, including Apple, Samsung Electronics, Qualcomm, and Nvidia.
3. As a result, just about every smartphone, mobile phone, and tablet runs on an ARM chip.
4. In fact, you can argue that ARM-based products are now the most-used consumer products in the world, outflanking even Coca-Cola and McDonald’s by some measures. (I recently made just such an argument.)
5. A great many people have not heard of ARM. This is because the company has largely kept to itself from a headquarters in Cambridge, England.
6. Its anonymity is sort of incredible when you think about it, considering that ARM has arguably had a more profound effect on modern living than just about any other company.

Picture an idyllic scene in the English countryside—like Downton Abbey, but bigger. That’s Cambridge. It has these ancient college buildings that are cathedrals to learning. On a warm day, students stream out and head to the river to go punting or get a pint and lounge around in grassy fields. It’s a place that begs you to get lost in thought.