Building success: semiconductors, software and open source

Rupert Baines

Rupert Baines

Last month saw two major events in the electronics industry, both of which are significant for the UK for both business and technology reasons.

First (as anyone with even a passing interest in the semiconductor industry will already know) Softbank bought ARM for a reported $31M. The only global-scale technology company in the UK is now Japanese owned.

That is sad in some respects, because the company was so iconic and (in more ways than one) it was “the only…”

But it is also a demonstration of success: that the UK has businesses that overseas investors are so keen to buy.

We know from the experience of Silicon Valley that success can breed success: the money created by ARM’s sale can be “recycled” and help fund another generation of start-ups.

And we do have lots of promising start-ups: businesses that can and will scale up. According to Silicon Valley Bank there are 51 startups in Europe worth over $1billion – and 18 of them are British.

That is really encouraging.

More work needs to be done. The UK still needs to work on “scaling up” to have the ability to turn successful start-ups into major on-going global businesses – but we have a good basis and scope for hope.

The second important event got much less publicity, but may be even more important than the ARM acquisition.

The RISC-V Foundation staged a workshop in Cambridge (the one in the US, not the UK – but I’ll get there). They are the custodians of an open-source CPU: similar to ARM in some ways – but open source.

We know how successful approaches like this can be: in the world of software, the obvious example is the success of the ubiquitous LAMP stack (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP/Perl/Python – all open source) that powers huge portions of the Internet. With examples like these, no wonder the tech world is enthusiastic about open source.

RISC-V started in Berkeley (appropriately enough), but is rapidly going global, with influential backers (including Google, HP and Oracle). And there are a number of UK organizations involved: University of Bristol (Prof David May FRS); Cambridge University (I said I’d get there); a Cambridge not-for-profit called lowRISC which is a sister organization to Raspberry Pi (another British technology triumph); and UltraSoC, an Octopus company, which is working on ways to improve the development and security of complex chips.

The success of open source in software shows how much value there is to be had from an ecosystem: where UltraSoC and others can profit. But this same approach can also enable entirely new businesses.

So let’s plan on the next wave of British success: scaling up the successes we have today; growing ideas like UltraSoC and lowRISC; and taking the proceeds of ARM to re-invest in a whole new generation of businesses.