15 September 2020 10:35
The ballroom of the Leela Palace Hotel in Bengaluru took on an unusual avatar one day in November 2005: it was transformed, albeit for just a few hours into the boardroom of the iconic Cambridge (UK)-based chip design company ARM (originally Acorn RISC Machines). For the first time in its history, the company was holding its annual meeting of the board of directors outside Britain. "I want our directors to get a feel for how much of the innovation that goes into ARM cores flows from India," Sir Robin Saxby, ARM's co-founder and chairman told me. At that time, ARM had an ecosystem of over 5,000 India-based engineers with dedicated research and development (R&D) centres based in the premises of four Indian partners: Wipro, Mindtree, HCL and Sasken. Coincidentally, nine months before, that same year, another international tech player — the US Silicon Valley-based Nvidia — set up its own R&D centre in Bengaluru with an initial team of 50 Indian engineers.
In the 15 years since, both companies have seen their India-based engineers grow in numbers, while contributing crucial intellectual property (IP) to their respective product lines. Key software that fuelled Nvidia's flagship GeForce single-chip graphical processors was written in India. ARM never developed chips; rather it developed the core software and architecture for a generation of system-on-chip (SoC) solutions that run most of the world's mobile phones starting with the pioneer among them, the Nokia 6110 handset. India-based engineers contributed large chunks of this software. There was not much in common with the end products of these two families of India-based innovators: ARM was to be found under the hood of Lilliputian devices, cell phones and thousands of smart devices clubbed under the name, Internet of Things (IoT) such as car-controllers, air-conditioners, washing machines, video door bells etc. Nvidia's forte was graphical computing — handling huge video and audio files — and increasingly the company's products found their way into massive supercomputers and servers; some of their devices were large as a paperback book. Early on 14 September, India time, the two companies made simultaneous announcements in Santa Clara, California (US) and Cambridge (UK) that Nvidia was to acquire ARM for $40 billion from Japan-based investment bank, SoftBank, which had acquired control of ARM in July 2016 for $32 billion. Nice going for SoftBank, which has made a nice chunk of change by its buy-and-sell act in just four years.