Last September, Nvidia, the American manufacturer of graphics processing chips, and the Japanese company SoftBank announced an agreement under which Nvidia would acquire the British chip designer Arm from SoftBank for $40bn. Since SoftBank had acquired Arm in 2016 for $32bn, you could say that a 25% profit on a five-year investment isn’t to be sneezed at, especially if industry mutterings about SoftBank’s crackpot investment strategy and Arm’s internal difficulties with its China-based operation are to be believed.
But even if one were foolish enough to sympathise with SoftBank’s desire to climb out of the hole it had dug for itself, the idea that Arm should be sold to a US chip manufacturer is so daft that even Boris Johnson’s administration had begun to smell a rat. And so on Monday it announced that the secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport was “intervening in the sale on national security grounds”, based on advice received “from officials across the investment security community”. To which decision the only possible response is: what took him so long?
To fully appreciate the idiocy of allowing the Nvidia deal to go ahead, some technical background might be helpful. Arm is a remarkable Cambridge-based company that emerged from the UK’s early lead in microcomputers in the 1980s, triggered by the BBC’s digital literacy project and the emergence of the BBC Micro. This famous machine was designed by Acorn, a Cambridge startup, and it provided the platform on which a generation of programmers and game designers first learned the basics of their craft.
After the success of the BBC machine, the question for Acorn’s founders was: what next? Their answer was to design a new kind of processor called a Risc (reduced instruction set computer) machine that had the potential for faster, cheaper and more energy-efficient computing. The company they set up to develop this idea was originally called Acorn Risc Machines, hence the acronym Arm, though it eventually became Advanced Risc Machines.
Arm was based on a clever idea from the outset, but the real stroke of genius was its co-founders’ invention of a novel business model. The company would not manufacture chips, but merely design processors to exploit Risc architecture and license the designs to anyone who wanted to actually manufacture the chips while paying royalties to Arm for the use of its intellectual property. This was astute because chip manufacturing is a hugely capital-intensive business feasible only for big companies with very deep pockets and an appetite for risk.
The key to Arm’s extraordinary growth was the smartphone revolution kicked off by the Apple iPhone in 2007. Suddenly, the world shifted to everyone wanting a powerful handhold computer that could access the internet. And all those little computers needed processors that were small, powerful and – most importantly – consumed as little power as possible. In other words, Arm designs. The result: something like 95% of all the mobile devices in the world now run on Arm-designed processors. That’s a British success story on an unimaginable scale.
But here’s the critical bit: Arm doesn’t make chips – that business is left to what are called “silicon foundries”, ie semiconductor fabrication plants. If you need a processor for your new phone or tablet or other gizmo and you’re willing to pay the royalty, you can use an Arm design. And so can your competitors. Arm can – and does – license its designs to all-comers becauseit’s not involved in their business! It doesn’t compete with its customers.
Nvidia, however, does make processors. Its graphics processing units (GPUs) are the wonders of the silicon world. Originally dominant in the areas of computer gaming, graphics processing and film animation, it turned out that they are also terrific for building machine-learning systems and neural networks – all stuff that happens on desktop computers or in large racks of servers in datacentres. And as the feeding frenzy over machine learning has become frenetic, Nvidia is booming, because it’s surfing a tsunami.
But it doesn’t really have a serious foothold in the mobile computing world, which is why it was hooked when SoftBank decided to dispose of Arm. In the crazed world of corporate mergers and acquisition it probably looks like a smart purchase. But in the long run it’s a way of crippling Arm (or perhaps even destroying it) because all chip manufacturers are, ultimately, competitors of Nvidia. They’re in the same business and in that racket only the paranoid survive.
If the Johnson administration is really serious about the UK continuing to have some real clout in the global digital economy, then letting the country’s one genuinely world-beating company go to a US firm (which is subject to US government rules about technology exports to China) would be certifiable lunacy. And the annoying thing is that an obvious solution exists: the government should take a 51% stake in Arm to protect it from corporate raiders and let it get on with what it does best.
Welcome to Pushing Buttons, the Guardian’s gaming newsletter. If you’d like to receive it in your inbox every week, just pop your email in below – and check your inbox (and spam) for the confirmation email.
This week marks a truly important video game anniversary: it is 50 years since Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney incorporated Atari Inc, the company that laid the foundations for the video games industry. There have been many appraisals of the company and its landmark achievements in the games press over the past few days – from the arrival of a Pong machine in Andy Capp’s Tavern in Sunnyvale, California, in 1972, through classic titles such as Breakout, Asteroids and Missile Commands, to the iconic home consoles. So many moments of creative genius, so many genres, concepts and conventions bursting into existence at the hands of scruffy engineers and designers such as Ed Logg, Larry Kaplan and Dona Bailey.
But one element that often gets overlooked in these nostalgic reveries is the way in which Atari taught the first generation of electronic gamers how to think symbolically. With two rectangles and a square, Pong invited us to visualise tennis, while Night Driver’s series of moving rectangles convinced us we were driving a car. Some will point to the 1972 console the Magnavox Odyssey as the originator of these concepts, but it was Atari putting them in arcade machines – and later consoles –all over the world.
It was also Atari that generated a whole universe around its simple games. Through beautiful cabinet designs, expert use of iconography and graphic design, and the gorgeous illustrations on its Atari VCS cartridges, the company sought to simulate the imagination of players before they even held the controller. The boxes for titles such as Berzerk and Defender, all highly abstract and visually simple games, were alive with drama; they showed human characters, explosions and colours that were impossible to achieve on screen at the time, quietly providing players with the imaginative tools they needed to become immersed. Would we have cared so much about the fate of the lifeless rock at the base of the screen in Missile Command if it hadn’t been for George Opperman’s package art? The tense commander at his desk, the explosions, the missiles seemingly scorching out of the box itself …
It was George Opperman who also designed Atari’s now legendary logo, consisting of three simple lines, the two exterior shafts curving inwards toward the peak. Over the years Opperman claimed many influences for his design – Mount Fuji, Japanese alphabet symbols, Pong itself – personally, I’ve always viewed it as a spaceship. But it’s how the image seems to sum up the excitement and futuristic promise of the company that really matters. When we see the logo flash briefly on the screen in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, it’s a quick visual signifier that this is a highly technological landscape. It fits in perfectly with a world of androids and flying cars.
Nolan Bushnell saw how video games could naturally bleed from the screen into real space, meat space. During the 1970s, the industry started in pubs and taverns, then moved into arcades and eventually the home, and they had effects on all of them: they changed behaviours and got written into our lives in subtle ways. His introduction of the Chuck E Cheese pizza restaurant chain, which combined family eating with a video game arcade, brilliantly monetised the ways that games, although graphically simple, had worked their way from the TV screen to dinner table conversation. We laugh about how the original VCS console had wood panelling, but this was a deliberate attempt to ape the aesthetics of the 1970s living room, with its wooden furniture, TV and stereo cabinets. Atari understood that assimilation would be a vital element of success.
Even now, in this age of near photorealism, video games rely on the kind of abstractions that Atari perfected. The heart symbols to denote the number of lives we have left; the heavy use of icons and exterior narratives; the endless references to familiar cinema tropes. We saw Atari being played on TV shows and films, we saw Atari in comics. While its games were still being drawn with two sprites each a single byte in size, the iconography of Atari was out there in the world. It’s something Nintendo would learn from, and later Sony, with its cultural melting pot of a console: the PlayStation. Atari was a myth maker too: from the Easter egg hidden in Adventure to the buried copies of E.T. in the California desert, the company itself became a source of digital folklore that took on meanings beyond anything portrayed on your TV.
50 years ago, Atari began to show us that games exist in a strange liminal space between the screen and the brain, and they are constantly able to escape. The dots on the screen are only ever part of the picture, and the picture never stops moving.
What to play
While we’re in a nostalgic mood, I’m really enjoying Capcom Fighting Collection. You’d probably expect a dozen famous titles from the Street Fighter series, but that’s already been covered by Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection. Instead, we get five games from the spooky, goth-infused Darkstalkers series, the mid-1990s fantasy-themed Red Earth and a bunch of offbeat Street Fighter dalliances including the ridiculously compelling Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, which brilliantly combined fighting game dynamics with … Tetris. The games are filled with blistering attacks and truly imaginative character designs, all lovingly updated for the modern era.
Available on: PC, PS4, Switch, Xbox One Approximate playtime: As long as you want
What to read
Eurogamer is running a whole series of features for Pride, including this piece talking to Captain Fluke about being the first openly trans esports commentator and this one on the joy of gay fan faction and mods. Elsewhere, IGN has listed its favourite ever LGBT+ characters in video games.
Verge has a really interesting piece on a group of creatives making branded worlds for big companies in Fortnite. Everyone talks about Facebook when referencing the coming era of the metaverse, but I’m pretty sure Fortnite is going to be just as important as an explorable shared space for interconnected worlds – and the advertising potential therein.
We also found out this week that Hidetaka Miyazaki, the creative genius behind Dark Souls and Elden Ring, is almost finished on his next project. This is good news for me as, after 225 hours, I’m nearing the end of Elden Ring and would be very happy to slide straight into his next game if possible.
If I’ve got you interested in Atari’s design and illustration philosophy, The Art of Atari by Tim Lapetino is a gorgeous book. For a more technical analysis of the company, try Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System by Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost.
This week’s question comes from Tim and his daughter Caitlin, and is answered by Keza:
“We got really into Hades over lockdown, loving the ‘it’s the same each time but really different too’ concept as well as the lore and the artwork. Can you recommend a similar game that we could play together?”
Hades is what’s known as a roguelike – one of those games where you have to start again from the beginning each time, but each playthrough throws different challenges at you – and, happily for you both, this genre has been having a moment over the past few years. Hades is a contender for the very best game in this genre, so it’s hard to rival, but here are some others to try.
Dead Cells is a kind of cyberpunk-fantasy action game where you gradually explore a shapeshifting castle; Spelunky 2 has you delving down below the Earth through caves full of amusing hazards, and has a great sense of humour (you can also play co-op); Into the Breach is something a little different, a strategy game where you have to defend the world from hostile invaders, travelling back in time after each failed attempt. And for a story and art style as good as that of Hades with a different gameplay feel, try developer Supergiant’s previous games Pyre,Transistor and Bastion, if you haven’t already.
China is claiming that as of Wednesday, its Tianwen-1 Mars orbiter has officially photographed the entire Red Planet. And it’s shown off new photos of the southern polar cap and a volcano to prove it.
“It has acquired the medium-resolution image data covering the whole globe of Mars, with all of its scientific payloads realizing a global survey,” state-sponsored media quoted the China National Space Administration (CNSA) announcing.
Among the images are one of Mount Askra with its crater, shots of the South Pole whose ice sheet is believed to consist of solid carbon dioxide and ice, the seven-kilometer deep Valles Marineris canyon, and the geomorphological characteristics of the rim of the Mund crater.
Mount Askela. Click to enlarge
Mars South Pole. Click to enlarge
Valles Marineris. Click to enlarge
Mund crater. Click to enlarge
Tianwen-1 had been in orbit around Mars for 706 days. The orbiter circled Mars 1,344 times, as of an announcement from CNSA. The space org said Tianwen-1 has completed its scheduled missions.
In conjunction with its rover Zhurong, Tianwen-1 amassed 1,040 gigabytes of raw scientific data through 13 onboard scientific payloads.
The mission has allowed CNSA to observe solar occultation and solar wind together with international observatories – including those in Russia, Germany, Italy, Australia and South Africa – to improve the accuracy of space weather forecasts. Good news for Matt Damon.
CNSA said it will share more scientific data with the international community in due course.
In December, Zhurong and the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft performed an in-orbit relay communication test to demonstrate it was possible to relay data from Zhurong back to Earth via Mars Express. The demonstration was successful, if a bit complicated – Mars Express had to “listen” for Zhurong since the rover was unable to communicate directly because the frequencies used don’t match.
Even though the mission is officially over, the orbiter and rover are still in working order. The orbiter will stay in orbit and continue its remote sensing and data relay activities while Zhurong will hibernate until weather conditions improve – likely in December. ®
Founded in 2011, Entrepreneur First’s portfolio has grown to more than 500 companies, which together are worth more than $10bn.
London-based scale-up investor Entrepreneur First has raised $158m in a Series C funding round, with backing from some of the world’s biggest tech founders.
The funding round included participation from Stripe co-founders Patrick and John Collison. They were joined by Wise co-founder Taavet Hinrikus (who also launched a new VC fund this week), LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, WordPress co-founder Matt Mullenweg, Monzo co-founder Tom Blomfield, Nested co-founder and CEO Matt Robinson, and many others.
There was also investment from longstanding institutional backers such as Transpose Platform, Vitruvian Partners, Encore Capital and Isomer Capital.
“It feels right that this round of funding comes from the most successful technology founders of today,” Entrepreneur First CEO Matt Clifford said. “Their support will build their counterparts of tomorrow.”
Founded in 2011, Entrepreneur First describes itself as “the best place in the world to meet your co-founder”. It says the best companies come from co-founding partnerships, but that finding the right person can be hugely challenging.
Entrepreneur First invests in early-stage founder talent. It works to bring people together from all walks of life to help meet potential co-founders, while giving them access to advisers in a three-month programme.
The company currently has 120 employees with offices in London, Toronto, Paris, Berlin, Bangalore and Singapore.
Its portfolio now includes more than 500 companies, which together exceed $10bn in value. These companies include computer vision unicorn Tractable, employment platform Omnipresent and advertising infrastructure platform Permutive.
“We built a way for the world’s most talented people, from all walks of life, to come together to find co-founders and build from scratch,” Clifford said. “Now, that fix has introduced co-founders who wouldn’t have otherwise met, to build companies that wouldn’t have been built.”
Entrepreneur First aims to see the value of companies built from its platform cross $100bn and beyond in the years to come.
“What we do may no longer seem crazy, as it did 10 years ago,” Clifford added. “But we’re just as committed to keep innovating to serve entrepreneurs better – and be the best place in the world to find a co-founder.”
10 things you need to know direct to your inbox every weekday. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of essential sci-tech news.