Chipmaker wants to revive the free PC

ZF Linux Devices is attempting to resurrect the free PC movement by cutting costs like never before.

John G. Spooner Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Spooner
covers the PC market, chips and automotive technology.
John G. Spooner
4 min read
ZF Linux Devices is attempting to resurrect the free PC movement by cutting costs like never before.

The 5-year-old company, which makes a low-cost microprocessor called the MachZ, has developed a blueprint for an inexpensive PC called the Z-Port. The company promises to license the design to interested Internet service providers for free.

By buying MachZ chips from the company and adopting the Z-Port blueprints, ISPs can put together a PC for $250, a cost that could be subsidized through long-term contracts with subscribers.

"If you're a customer that wants to go into the (Internet) appliance market...we will give you the design. It's totally open source," said David Feldman, president of Palo Alto, Calif.-based ZF Linux.

While analysts believe that success for Z-Port is a long shot, ZF Linux asserts it has indeed found ways to trim more fat out of PC design than other companies that have tried and failed with the free PC concept. The company believes it will succeed for several reasons:

The MachZ processor is an integrated "system on a chip" that combines input and output controllers onto the same piece of silicon as the microprocessor, thereby cutting costs.

The Z-Port can also be configured with a free version of Linux, rather than Windows.

In addition, the company is giving the PC design away for free.

Although all of these concepts have been tried in the past. ZF Linux's twist is combining them all into a low-cost hat trick.

Several ISPs are close to announcing plans to offer Z-Port to their subscribers, Feldman asserted. "Some ISPs are actually very interested in that...This is a full PC they could give away."

Getting what you paid for
Despite the innate appeal of the word free, the free PC approach has been tried numerous times and failed miserably. Companies such as Enchilada and Microworkz burst upon the consumer scene in early 1999 and were greeted with enthusiasm from consumers. However, most of the companies failed to deliver on orders and faded away quickly.

Integrated microprocessors have been tried before too and didn't meet with long-term success. Although integrated microprocessors cut costs, they often lag in performance compared with other chips and require specific computer designs, which can make life more difficult for PC makers.

Compaq Computer, for example, launched the first successful sub-$1,000 PC in February 1997. The computer contained an integrated Cyrix MediaGX. Although the offering was popular, PC manufacturers were able to match Compaq in price over the succeeding months by building computers with standard components.

"Basically, people have See special report: PC free-for-allgone down this path before," said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research. "We've seen a lot of experimental, high-integration boxes. But there's a presumption that one of these will ultimately be successful."

Even without its PC, ZF Linux claims a number of customers are designing handheld devices, digital cameras, security cameras and residential gateways with its MachZ chips.

Several companies will use MachZ in portable devices, including a handheld credit card transaction machine, Feldman said. A company in Japan will use the MachZ to build a Linux-based office server for sharing files and Internet access. Yet another company will use the chip inside a digital camera to process digital images without the assistance of a desktop PC, Feldman said. And one other company is building a residential gateway with MachZ. The device will plug into a telephone line, establish an Internet connection and allow multiple PCs to share that connection using Bluetooth, the short-range wireless networking technology.

The MachZ chip currently runs at 128MHz and is compatible with Intel-based computers. Such a clock speed is considered slow by today's standards. However, Feldman asserts that the integrated nature of the chip adds performance that people wouldn't normally expect from a 128MHz chip.

ZF Linux gained access to the Intel-compatible, or X86, architecture thanks to an agreement with National Semiconductor, which assisted in the design of MachZ and now also serves as its manufacturer.

"We designed and fabbed a custom (integrated circuit) for them based largely on our specs and added some of their IP (intellectual property) for ROM and Logic add-ons. In effect, we're making a chip for them just like we would for other customers. The difference is we helped design this custom chip with them and for them," said Jeff Weir, a spokesman for National Semiconductor.

National Semi could also act as a foundry for third-party X86 architecture if it chooses to, Weir said. "But that's not in the cards at the moment."

National Semi sold most of its Cyrix business to Via Technologies in 1999, but retained the X86 license and technology related to integrated X86 chips, such as MediaGX.

MachZ is being manufactured using a 0.25-micron process. However, a move to a more current 0.18-micron process later this year will net a clock-speed increase to 166MHz or 180MHz, Feldman said.

Running at its full speed, the chip consumes about 1 watt of power. However, power consumption drops to as little as 250 milliwatts when the chip is reduced in speed to 33MHz.

Over time, ZF Linux plans to expand the reach of MachZ into new devices, by creating a number of companion chips for it.

Design work on the first such companion chip should be completed by July. Samples of the new companion chip, which will include Ethernet networking, an encryption engine and a firewall, will be sent to customers in August or September. ZF Linux will combine it with MachZ to offer a hardware package for an e-commerce server, Feldman said.