Hermann Hauser: The ARM founder who says Apple will be a ‘niche player’ within a decade

Jamie Nimmo
Tech veteran: Hermann Hauser started ARM as a joint venture with Apple before floating it on the LSE in 1998: Paul Dallimore

It’s been 10 years since Steve Jobs, dressed in his signature black polo neck and jeans, unveiled the first iPhone to rock-star acclaim around the world. He and the audience were — the Apple founder claimed — “making history”.

Those who were aware of Jobs’ ego, which only reared its head away from the cameras, rolled their eyes. Among them was Hermann Hauser, another computer pioneer who founded Acorn Computers, which spawned ARM Holdings.

Hauser would mingle at conferences in the early days of computers with the likes of Jobs, Bill Gates and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. “When Jobs showed his iPhone for the first time and said he’d ‘reinvented’ the phone, I thought, ‘Oh, for Christ’s sake’,” the Austria-born entrepreneur recalls, throwing his Google phone on the table in disgust.

“But he had. He actually had,” Hauser acknowledges, almost with a grimace, as if it pains him to say so. “He was absolutely brilliant, but he treated his staff like shit.” I ask if Jobs stood out from the crowd. “Steve stood out as the most unpleasant of the lot,” Hauser clarifies.

When we meet in the London office of his Cambridge venture capital firm Amadeus Capital Partners, the silver-haired, tanned Hauser is dressed in his own signature outfit: a navy jacket, with beige fleece underneath, and polka-dot neckerchief.

Contemporary: Apple's Steve Jobs (AFP/Getty Images)

He’s so calm and laidback that it seems hard to believe this is the man who bemoaned the £24 billion sale of ARM, the chip designer he founded, to Japan’s SoftBank. “I still regret that it was sold because it’s really the last UK IT company with a global footprint,” he says.

He is pleased that “out of all the acquirers”, Masayoshi Son, SoftBank’s billionaire founder who pledged to more than double ARM’s headcount in the UK and keep the headquarters in Cambridge, is in charge. And he isn’t concerned by the recent decision to move a quarter of ARM into a new $100 billion fund it set up with Saudi Arabia.

“As long as Son runs SoftBank, I think ARM will be fine. But he’s retired once already, and what happens when he retires in three or five years’ time? Will his successor have the same attitude to ARM or not?”

Hauser makes a compelling argument. If ARM bolsters the security of the chips, he says it “could easily” be worth $100 billion — more than three times what SoftBank paid.

His opinions don’t come in half measures but each is delivered with typical composure. He thinks the likes of Barclays and Royal Bank of Scotland will “just not exist” as High Street banks once the fintech revolution picks up speed. “You can replace all these banks by computer.” He also believes Apple’s smartphone dominance is coming to an end — “a very sad story”.

"Apple will be back as a niche player with a 10% market share — if they can keep it."

Hermann Hauser

“They will be back as a niche player with a 10% market share — if they can keep it — because Huawei, LG and Samsung are going to wipe the floor with them,” he says. “I like Apple, despite Steve Jobs,” he adds with a grin.

Don’t get him started on Brexit, or “Britain’s worst own goal in history” as he tweeted on the day of the EU referendum result. Hauser’s frustration at Britain leaving the EU is hardly surprising, given his European roots. He left the Austrian Alps for Cambridge to do a PhD in physics after a year of military service at home. He’s been in Silicon Fen since, but manages to find time to spend with his wife on their beef farm in New Zealand (it has its own beach).

When he went into physics, he was warned by a family friend that he would “never make any money”. But then he decided to start a company with Cambridge-based entrepreneur Chris Curry, whom he met socially. “I must have had some of my father’s entrepreneurial genes,” he says, referring to his father’s wine business in Austria.

Hauser and Curry went to the bank across from his halls at King’s College, Cambridge and got a £10,000 cheque, and, months later, one for £50,000. What started as Cambridge Processor Unit Ltd in the late Seventies became Acorn Computers. A deal to produce the BBC Micro for schools made it an overnight success. When the pair returned two years later, asking for £1 million, the bank manager “fell off his chair”. No company had ever asked for that amount of money so soon.

“I often wonder if I would have financed myself. And the answer is probably no,” he admits. “We didn’t even have a business plan — we had a hunch that this was going to be important.” Luckily, they did find a banker to lend them the cash and Acorn grew into a company known across the land when Hauser and Curry cashed in with a £200 million stock-market float.

Just as the first ARM chips were being developed, and when they finally solved their production problems, the home-computer market collapsed. “We finally had them coming in by the lorry loads when people stopped buying them.”

Olivetti rode to the rescue and took a controlling stake on the cheap. Hauser spent the next three years setting up research labs for the Italian PC firm. He also helped create Advanced RISC Machines, which became ARM. It started out as a joint venture with Apple before floating on the LSE in 1998.

In the meantime, Hauser established Active Book Company, which was behind a pen computer — the original tablet computer. It was bought by AT & T and incorporated into EO, which the US telecoms giant also owned, although pen computing never took off.

Next, he brought online share trading to the UK in the late Nineties when he set up E*Trade UK, a joint venture with the US company of the same name. Just as it signed a one-year deal with the London Stock Exchange to get a near-live price feed, the LSE pulled the plug, and shortly after stunned Hauser by announcing it would be doing its own online share trading.

With lawyers in tow, he met the then-chairman of the London Stock Exchange in “the most bizarre meeting of my life”, Hauser recalls. “He greeted me with the LSE’s motto My Word is My Bond — just after breaking the contract.” The chairman proceeded to thump the desk in anger. “As a young person, you have this great respect for a great institution like the LSE. And there was this guy who was clearly out of his tree.” The financial watchdog told the LSE to honour its contract, he recollects with satisfaction, and E*Trade UK was ultimately sold to the US partner for $280 million.

At about the same time, he had started his private equity firm Amadeus with chief executive Anne Glover, a tech start-up investor at Apax, and became the person handing out the cheques rather than receiving them. The move into venture capital made sense. By then, Hauser accounted for half of all angel investment in Cambridge, having backed dozens of start-ups along the way.

Although it has kept a low profile, Amadeus has had a pretty good run in its 20 years. Early successes included lastminute.com’s float in 2000 and the $600 million sale of gene-sequencing firm Solexa in 2007. More recently, Samsung-backed Amadeus cashed in when London-listed chipmaker CSR, formerly Cambridge Silicon Radio, was sold to Qualcomm in 2015 for £1.6 billion. It also sold VocalIQ, an artificial intelligence voice firm, to Apple in 2015 for reportedly close to $100 million.

Hauser himself — reportedly worth £150 million — is a real draw for tech founders. Those include lastminute.com and made.com co-founder Brent Hoberman, who describes him as “a pillar of UK tech investing” and “a great support” for his own businesses. “He can help predict the future and help entrepreneurs get there fast,” he adds.

Amadeus has always had a fondness for biotech, a Cambridge speciality, but is also a specialist investor in fast-growing areas such as AI and cyber security. Hauser is also keen on fintech, where the London scene comes into its own.He visits the Mayfair office once or twice a week but still spends most of his time in Cambridge. While he’s “scaling back a little”, Hauser, who was awarded an honorary knighthood last year, has no plans to head off into the sunset — or to his beef farm — just yet.

The joy he clearly gets from starting companies has not diminished, and he recalls almost every step of his career with the same fondness — most anecdotes begin with the phrase: “It was the most amazing time.”

Although very different in personality, Hauser clearly shares the vision that made Jobs such an icon. Does it bother him that he is often described as the UK’s answer to the Apple man?

“Given his achievements, it’s probably not a bad comparison.” Maybe, but I get the feeling Hauser is more popular among colleagues than Jobs ever was.