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Motorola, IBM have big PowerPC plans

The two are writing a new chapter in the book on PowerPC architecture that the companies hope will make forthcoming products a bestseller in the market for embedded processors.

Motorola and IBM are writing a new chapter in the book on PowerPC architecture that the companies hope will make forthcoming products a bestseller in the market for embedded processors.

Motorola and IBM said the new architecture, code-named "Book E," will help standardize certain basic elements of PowerPC chips in both companies' product lines, while simultaneously increasing the ease for each to customize chips.

The changes pave the way for the two to go head-to-head in the market for low-cost embedded processors, which are used in everything from set-top boxes for satellite and cable TV, networking equipment, automotive engine-control systems, and more. The announcement also highlights how Apple Computer--the only company using the PowerPC chip in a desktop computer--has a different, and some might say reduced, role in the development of the guts of its computers.

"From a technology perspective, this is good news for the embedded market. Basically, Motorola and IBM are competitors, and companies can have more than one parts supplier," said Jim Turley, senior analyst with MicroDesign Resources.

IBM and Motorola noted that one of the main advantages of the new "Book E" architecture will make it easier for customers to migrate from 32-bit to 64-bit PowerPC designs, executives said. Applications designed for the current PowerPC architecture will run on 64-bit versions of the chip, although no specific products have been announced yet.

Another advantage, said Tom Sartorius, senior engineer for PowerPC products at IBM, is that the new design allows for the easy addition of what he calls "application-specific processing units." These can act as specialized co-processors such as a digital signal processor or multimedia playback accelerator, but are on the same piece of silicon.

Improvements aside, if customers want to stay with the older design, they can: Executives say that there is no plan to force a migration to the updated design.

Door opens up for Apple
The new design opens up the door for Apple to easily transition to 64-bit processors in its computers, but the work was done at the request of IBM and Motorola customers who are looking at putting more powerful chips in products such as telecommunications equipment, or routers that guide Internet traffic along to its proper destination. In essence, the desktop PC market isn't the driving force behind the changes.

"While Book E addresses some needs of Apple, it was done at the request of embedded customers," said Will Swearingen, director of PowerPC marketing for Motorola. "They wanted to see a combined development [the PowerPC] roadmap, and flexibility in how they do business," he noted.

"Apple was out of the loop on this," Turley opined. "They used to have to agree to changes," he said, because they were part owners of the design, along with IBM and Motorola. Motorola said Apple, as a major customer of PowerPC chips, was kept up to date on the changes and had input in the process.

That is a marked difference from PowerPC's roots as a joint venture between the three companies to unseat Intel as the dominant computer-chip architecture, but just one of many changes of late. IBM and Motorola had jointly operated the Somerset design facility for PowerPC development in Austin, Texas, but IBM handed control of the facility over to Motorola last year.

Since that time, there have been questions from customers about the future of the PowerPC architecture, executives said. The new design is intended to provide customers a clearer roadmap for the future, said Swearingen.

"Both IBM and Motorola are committed to working together, and we are very much committed to PowerPC," said Elliott Newcombe, a product marketing manager for IBM's Microelectronics division. However, the two companies are developing products separately, and will offer products based on this core architecture on their own, independent timeline, he added.

For instance, the announcement of a new architecture does not resolve other issues raised last year with the dissolution of the Somerset venture, nor ultimately what kind of role IBM will take in developing new chips for the Mac platform. (See related story.)

Last year, Motorola introduced technology, which it calls "AltiVec," for speeding multimedia and communications functions. Apple, for its part, has expressed an interest in using this technology, but hasn't formally announced plans.

At the time, IBM's decision to remain on the sidelines in regards to AltiVec raised concerns about whether or not one company--Motorola--could supply Apple with the chips it needs and recoup its investment. Those questions remain.

With the new Book E design, AltiVec gets implemented as an add-on component to the PowerPC processor. IBM's Newcombe said there isn't yet enough interest on the part of its customers to develop a part that uses an IBM version of AltiVec technology, but conversely, its use hasn't been ruled out, either.