Whatever happened to Acorn computers, once sprinkled through schools across the country?
Many of the New Zealand teachers who were using technology in their classrooms 20 years ago will recall BBC and Acorn computers, including the Archimedes, the A3000, the RISC PC, as well as the educational games and software that came with them.
While the many Acorn computers sold into schools languished in classrooms in the nineties before being tossed out, the processing power that made them more powerful and advanced than most offerings of the day has gone on to greater things.
ARM chips (ARM was originally “Acorn RISC Machine” but changed later to “Advanced RISC Machines”) have recently been in the news as a result of Softbank’s NZ$45 billion proposed purchase of ARM Holdings, now one of the U.K.’s most successful tech companies.
Back in 1978 Acorn Computers was a British computer company based in Cambridge. The ARM-based Acorn Archimedes desktop-computer series seen in many New Zealand classrooms was released in mid-1987 and was popular in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. This 1993 video produced in “the Information Age” by The Sunday Times and Acorn Computers about the use of computers in education features these distinctive computers, (and nostalgia-inducing messages about the use of computers in the future – the 21st century).
In 1998 the company was broken up into several independent operations, but one of Acorn’s former subsidiaries lives on as ARM Holdings. Their primary business is the design and licensing (but not manufacture) of ARM processors, and they report selling more than 15 billion units in 2015. Almost all of the world’s mobile phones and personal digital assistants contain ARM CPUs, making them the most widely used 32-bit microprocessor family in the world.
The Softbank purchase is seen as representing a significant strategy from Softbank in the world of mobile communications and the development of the “Internet of Things.” Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son is an advocate for the combination of ubiquitous computing and artificial intelligence bringing about the singularity – a time in the future when artificial intelligence will exceed human intellectual capacity and control.
Son says “I think we are about to see the biggest paradigm shift in human history. The Singularity is coming. Artificial intelligence will overtake human beings not just in terms of knowledge, but in terms of intelligence. That will happen this century.”
As an educator who invested a lot of time and energy into early technology in the classroom, especially Acorn technology, it’s been interesting for me to track the trajectory of RISC technology and ARM designed processors over 25 years, from the Acorn in the corner of the classroom, to a time where most of us have ARM designed technology in our pockets. The purchase price of NZ$45 billion seems to indicate that ARM technology will have a significant role to play in the spread of microprocessors and the internet of things in the near future.