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Acorn – A New Computing Seed

This former European IT company is considered by many as being “the most influential business in the innovation cluster’s history” to date. It was founded in Cambridge, UK, in 1979, bringing the world the Maverick and Smart computers, before being disbanded in 1998.

The aptly named ACORN bore fertility from its seed: Indeed… amongst its greatest legacies we can find ARM ltd ($25bn market cap today), the omnipresent Broadcom Firepath processor, the Raspberry Pi… as well as, first and foremost, a truly iconic brand that introduced the computer to the general public.

Its story is a firm part of our history (Wikipedia or fan sites..); its corporate core values remain exceptional.

“By using the Tube, we were the only people in the world who could use the same operating system with all the different processors” Sophie Wilson, ARM Architect

‘A’ For Adaptability

In order to withstand the dominance of the US industry, ACORN had to find ways of being smarter, lighter, and cheaper than its overpowering competitors. It had no choice but to come up with innovations that represented real breakthroughs… and they did:

- The patented “tube” interface enabled an optional processor to be added to the main one. In the 80’s this was practically equivalent to magic…the Intel i486 was now compatible with ARM.

- The slice architecture meant that an unlimited amount of additional extension cards could be used.

- Plug & Play removable processors became a reality, and so the option of key component upgrades resulted in substantial savings for the company’s consumers.

The heart of the Archimedes: the ARM2 - a simple, low-cost, 32-bit RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computer)

‘C’ For Chips

One of ACORN’s most noteworthy legacies is the Acorn Risc Machine (ARM), a revolutionary 32-bits reduced instruction set architecture, which was first thought-up in 1984 and launched in 1987 with the Archimedes computer. This major breakthrough led to the establishment of the ARM Ltd spin off in 1990, co-owned by Apple and Acorn.

ARM Ltd. with its low-consumption chips is currently one of the principal players in the mobile chips industry – miles ahead of Intel – and due to its patented technology, there is a little bit of ACORN to be found in practically every smartphone.

The Risc OS, a very competitive sofware compared to its rival operating systems

‘O’ For Operating System

Hardware without software is nothing at all. ACORN was very aware of this and therefore developed its own OS for its machines. The RiscOS created by ACORN was remarkably efficient thanks to its smart design and hardware/software integration.

Quality programmes were also provided by the dedicated ACORNSOFT subsidiary or third parties.

They even released excellent computer games. The mythical ELITE was marketed in 1984 by David Braben for the BBC Micro; players could generate up to 2.000 star systems with this classic game… and that with a 20 ko memory content!

The Joint Venture Acorn-Apple had a dominant market share in 1998 in UK primary schools (47%) and Secondary schools( 33%).

‘R’ For Relevant Education

Four days! That was the amount of time that the BBC accorded to ACORN to come up with and demonstrate a workable prototype for its Computer Literacy Project in 1980. Steve Furber’s innate talent, along with stupendous amounts of caffeine, led to ACORN winning this highly important market sector. BBC Micro (1981), BBC Master (1984) and Archimedes (1987) occupied a central place in schools and colleges all around Britain.

ACORN and Education: a perfect match for almost two decades.

The idea behind the Network Computer was to offer in 1996 a low -cost PC, relying on Internet connectivity for much of functionality. Acorn built the reference NC model for Oracle, based of course on ARM chips.

“N” like Niche

Seeing as ACORN lacked the size of its heavyweight competitors, it had to challenge the IT giants by guaranteeing better value for money; a fruitful strategy in a consumer market where good pricing is of the essence. The 1983 Electron at £199, the 1992 A3010 at £499, and other nicely priced models were back then highly competitive; betting the IBM-PC standards and won over cost-driven administrations/organisations as well as the general public.

ACORN was continuously dreaming up and developing its next innovative product; this approach was an intrinsic part of the company’s identity. Concepts like the Network Computer or the touch screen tablet computer Newspad (already in 1996!) were far ahead of their time and stand testament to ACORN’s pioneering ambitions.

2015, Here We Come…

ACORN was a true booming company! Its legacy changed the world, and more specifically the IT industry. It is, in part, thanks to ACORN that we use smartphones nowadays, and that IT became an inherent part of our daily personal lives, whether in the home or in the school environment.

Since 1998, when ACORN exited the personal computer industry and split off into several, often brilliant, spin-offs, the initial seeds of genius have remained dormant and waiting just under the surface. Only a few drops of pure innovation and some rays of marketing flair are required to reawaken its destiny.

As is the way in nature, “The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn” – Ralph Waldo Emerson