Honorary Graduates

Orations and responses

Sir Robin Saxby

Oration given on Wednesday 9 July 2003

Chancellor, the Senate of the University has resolved that the degree of Doctor of the University be conferred on SIR ROBIN SAXBY.

If I asked everyone in the audience to name a microprocessor company, I imagine that the first name that would come to mind would be Intel, perhaps because of first-hand experience using PCs, perhaps because of Intel's very successful series of TV advertisements promoting the benefits of 'Intel inside'. According to the Motley Fool website, around 400 million Intel architecture chips were sold worldwide last year. But there is another company whose chip designs have sold more than 2 billion units over the last few years. That company is ARM which is headquartered in Cambridge UK, but with a major global influence; Sir Robin Saxby has led ARM since its formation as a spin-off of ACORN Computers in 1990.

Sir Robin has a long and distinguished career in the electronics and computer industry, starting out as a teenager with a hobby interest (though in his case even then it had a commercial outlet, running an electronics repair business). He completed an Electronics degree at Liverpool University, before rapidly gaining industrial experience in design and development at Rank Bush Murphy and Pye TMC. He then moved to Motorola and rose rapidly through their hierarchy before leaving to take up his first Chief executive role as head of Henderson Security Systems (whose parent company were in Romford). After that he worked for five years for European Silicon Structures – a chip foundry – before being head-hunted to lead ARM from its formation as a 12-person start-up to success as a multi-billion pound company listed in the FTSE-100. His success was recognised in 2002 not only with a Knighthood in the New Year’s Honours List, but also by the award of the Institution of Electrical Engineer’s Faraday Medal, in recognition of his outstanding contributions to the Electronics and IT industries in the UK.

So how is it that while Intel is a household name, many of you may never have heard of ARM? Part of the explanation is that ARM is a new economy company. It designs chips, but instead of manufacturing them itself, licenses its designs to – currently – 112 semiconductor "partner" manufacturers around the world, including Intel; and it makes its money from licensing and royalties. But most of the answer is that ARM's designs are incorporated in what we engineers and computer scientists call 'embedded systems', consumer and industrial products that use microprocessors to provide the flexible control, signal processing and user interfaces which we all take for granted in modern electronic systems. ARM has established a supremacy in one part of this market – that for low-power, battery operated applications – and now ARM’s potential rivals, including Intel, use ARM technology in their products. Most of you in the audience probably have an ARM design on you right now. I have three with me at present: a mobile phone (about 80% of the world's mobile phones use ARM chip designs); a PDA (handheld computer) which allows me to carry my diary, email, documents and spreadsheets from my PC around with me, as well as playing music and showing pictures; and my son's Game Boy Advance (which actually includes 2 ARM chips, as games are one of the most technically demanding applications for computers)!

ARM is headquartered in East Anglia at Cambridge, and around 80% of its 700 employees are graduate engineers and computer scientists. Between 25% and 30% of its turnover is reinvested in research and development, so it is a model of how the UK can lead the world as a knowledge-based economy. Sir Robin himself has contributed significantly to government thinking on how industry and universities should interact through his input to parliamentary select committees and to the various reviews of the supply of Science and Engineering skills and wealth creation in the UK.

In addition to being the leading architecture for chips in mobile handsets, ARM is also highly successful in other developing areas of telecommunications and computer networks such as wireless networking ('WiFi'), Bluetooth short range wireless communications (often called Personal Area Networking), network interface cards, security applications such as smart cards, and automotive applications. In all these areas ARM's vision is towards having not just one computer chip, but tens or even hundreds coupled closely together through networks to provide us with intelligent buildings, vehicles, and even clothes. ARM chips provide both the best performance per dollar, and the best performance per Watt of power – vital for portable devices – in the business, making the company the world leader in its field.

Sir Robin's vision is shared here at Essex, where we have specialised in telecommunications, networks and embedded systems for many years. Indeed, the university is currently building a new £6M Network Centre to bring together physically separated areas of Computer Science and Electronic Systems Engineering, with the objective of facilitating just the sort of collaborative and multidisciplinary research and teaching in pervasive network applications which Sir Robin envisages. Our own connections with ARM date back to 1991, when we decided to use the elegant ARM computer architecture as the main teaching example for our undergraduate degree schemes, precisely to make our own students aware that there are other successful computer architectures than Intel, and that one of the most successful of them all is British. As a result, I am proud to say that several generations of computer and electronic engineering students at Essex have already graduated with intimate knowledge of ARM's technology, a situation that continues to the current day. It is therefore only proper that we should recognise and honour the person who has influenced so much of our teaching and research here.

Chancellor, I present to you SIR ROBIN SAXBY

Orator: Professor Andy Downton