Unix which was created in the early 1970s. Running Windows Phone? That is based on Windows NT from the early 1990s, which in turn was largely inspired by another 1970s operating system, VMS. Have a new BlackBerry? Well, that's based on QNX from 1980s.
But one thing that links almost all modern smartphones is the
processor - almost every one sold runs on some sort of core licensed
from the British company ARM.
But the story of ARM begins with something familiar to anyone
who grew up in Britain during the 1980s - the BBC
Micro. This 8-bit microcomputer was developed in conjunction
with the BBC by Acorn. At first glance it seems to have little in
common with those tiny computers we carry in our pockets with just
32Kb of RAM and a 2MHz processor.. after all, even the most basic
smartphone has a processor that runs hundreds of times quicker and
with 32 times the memory. But there was more to the BBC Micro than
one third of a century ago, this humble machine could support a
processor, had a built in analogue to digital converter, optional
networking and speech synthesis, a whole host of interface ports,
possibly the best audio of any machine at the time and high-resolution
graphics. With the optional Teletext
adapter the BBC could download news, information and even programs
over a TV signal, and with a Prestel
adapter it could access information over the phone line. The BBC
Micro was designed from the outset to communicate with other devices
and to be flexible and expandable.
But the key thing about the BBC Micro was that it was fast. Really
fast. Some of this was down to the highly optimised version of BASIC
that programs could use, but mostly it was down to the processor
itself. Although clocked at a modest 2MHz, the 6502
processor was significantly speedier than the rival Z80,
due mostly to the simple design of the onboard logic which meant
that it was relatively primitive but also very quick.
computers in the late 1980s. The Archimedes range used and evolved
many of the same features pioneered in the BBC, but the processor
was a huge leap forward.
Clocked initially at just 8MHz, the ARM processor's simple internal
design was both very fast and relatively cheap to make, which met
Acorn's requirements for a home computer. But almost coincidentally,
this also made the processor very small and power efficient.
ARM eventually spun off from Acorn and began to licence the processor
cores to other manufacturers. Although the take-up was initially
quite slow, the growth of PDAs and later smartphones from the late
1990s onwards really expanded the use of the ARM processor enormously,
and it is now the most commonly used type of CPU in the world.
So, next time someone shows you their snazzy new smartphone,
instead of just being jealous you can simply point out that it is
based on 1970s and 1980s technology instead..