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Japanese telecom firm SoftBank has recently launched an agreed takeover bid for UK chip designer ARM (which doesn't make chips but designs them and has provided the overwhelming majority of technology used in mobile phone CPUs among many other achievements).

In commenting on the proposed takeover Herman Hauser, one of ARM's founders, expressed regret. He argued that ARM has been unusually successful for a UK tech firm saying in a BBC interview, as an example:

...the technology firm [ARM] had sold 15 billion microchips in 2015, which was more than US rival Intel had sold in its entire history.

But although ARM has been very successful is it true that ARM sold more chips in one year than Intel has in history?

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    ARM doesn't make chips but has sold 15 billion of them? – DJClayworth Jul 18 '16 at 18:37
  • @DJClayworth ARM gets a fee every time a chip using one of its designs is sold. So they do "sell" a lot of chips. – matt_black Jul 18 '16 at 18:43
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    So by "ARM sells a chip" they mean "someone sells a chip which ARM had a hand in designing". – DJClayworth Jul 18 '16 at 18:59
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    @DJClayworth Yes. That's how their model works. Intel both designs and fabricates its chips and doesn't licence designs to others. Both can clearly count how many chips they sell which is what matters for the question. – matt_black Jul 18 '16 at 19:39
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    @DJClayworth: Not quite. By "ARM sells a chip" they mean ARM sold the license to people to manufacture 15 billion chips. It's the same as saying Rhianna sold 54 million albums when in fact she just sold the copyright to companies selling those albums for real. ARM are not just designing the chips, in most cases they're actually selling them (the exceptions being chips like the Chinese Dragon CPUs which is based on old ARM designs which contains no currently patented tech) – slebetman Jul 25 '16 at 7:45
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It depends what you mean by "sold a chip". Intel designs, fabricates and sells a wide range of chips, so for Intel the answer is simple (they don't license out their designs). But ARM doesn't manufacture anything physical. ARM produces the designs for microprocessors. Actual manufacturers such as Broadcom then license the designs, integrate them with other special-purpose hardware (e.g. a cellphone modem and keypad encoder) and then sell the result. The details are confidential, but basically ARM gets a commission on each chip sold. So how many chips does ARM sell? It depends on whether you count the chips produced by their licensees. If you only count chips produced directly by ARM then the number is zero. If you count their licensees then the number is massive.

In the 4th quarter of 2014 3.5 billion ARM-based chips were sold, which would mean around 14 billion per year. Meanwhile in Q3 of 2014 Intel sold "over 100 million" CPUs, which would mean over 400 million per year. I haven't found any total lifetime numbers for Intel processors, but if we guess that "over 100 million" in one quarter equates to 500 million per year, then it would take Intel 28 years to equal ARM's unit sales. Given the expansion of the PC market over the last few decades I doubt Intel was selling anything like 400 million processors in 1988, so the assertion is at least credible. Also note that this only counts Intel CPUs. Intel sells other types of chips as well.

Of course Intel processors cost a lot more than ARM processors. Intel specializes in being the fastest thing you can buy. ARM specializes in being the best choice for low-power battery operated devices designed to a price point. A typical Intel processor (just chip, packaging and heatsink) costs more than most of the gadgets built around ARM processors. Thats why the Raspberry Pi uses an ARM.

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    Also, further confusing the "sold a chip" question, in the past Intel has manufactured and sold ARM chips (XScale). – derobert Jul 19 '16 at 21:27
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    @derobert That doesn't confuse the total, it just means that both Intel and ARM can count the chips XScale produced. – matt_black Jul 30 '16 at 22:02
  • "this only counts Intel CPUs" is a huge problem with the claim. For every Intel processor in use there are from a couple to dozens of supporting chips (example: Intel SSD controller + 20 Intel flash chips) and that still doesn't count the chips that aren't going into a conventional PC. – Ben Voigt Oct 13 '16 at 19:09

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