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Sun releases complete chip design for free

Sun Microsystems hopes that its chips will become more popular if it costs nothing to evaluate their design, but analysts say factors other than licensing fees are more important.

Sun Microsystems has released the designs of a complete microprocessor for free today in an effort to make its chip designs more popular.

The complete MicroSparc IIep design can be downloaded for free under the terms of Sun's Community Source License. Companies that sell the chip must pay Sun royalties--3 percent of the average selling price--but they save hundreds of thousands of dollars in licensing fees that they could have paid to just get a glimpse of the design, said Fady Azhari, a marketing manager at Sun.

The strategy is an effort to propagate the chip design and encourage companies to write software for it, Azhari said. "It just pushes Sparc further in many different devices, markets that it hasn't been into," he said.

The Community Source License model, also used by Sun with software technologies such as Java, its programming language, is part of Sun's attempt to encourage people to adopt its technology by experimenting with it for free and paying only when products using it are sold.

Letting firms evaluate chip designs for free is another wrinkle in the fast-moving microprocessor industry, an area laden with legal and technological minefields. Sun's strategy goes a step beyond another recent arrival in the microprocessor realm, the "fabless" philosophy under which companies such as Mips or Rambus design chips and leave the manufacturing to others.

Eliminating up-front licensing costs may make the design more appealing to some customers and get some companies to evaluate it, said MicroDesign Resources analyst Tom Halfhill. But a company's decision to use the design ultimately will be based on whether the chip can do the job a firm requires.

"It's attractive for a company that doesn't have the up-front money to invest or that wants to put that money elsewhere, but a more well-funded company is going to select the best chip for the job," he said. "They'll definitely get more people to look at it and at least evaluate it."

The MicroSparc IIep is an "embedded" chip, meaning that it's used in specific-purpose devices where the user doesn't usually have to know any of the details of the underlying hardware and software. The IIep currently is used in Scientific Atlanta TV set-top boxes, Sun's older JavaStation "thin clients," and the new Sun Ray "thin client" device introduced last week. The chip design is about five years old, Azhari said.

"The more independent software vendors who write on Sparc, even in the embedded space, the more it helps Sun on the mid-range and high end," Azhari said.

Though the UltraSparc II, the big brother of the IIep, is a well-regarded chip that powers Sun's biggest computers, the company's chip efforts haven't always been smooth sailing. Last year, Sun changed direction on its PicoJava chip--a chip designed to bring Java capabilities to small devices--by abandoning plans to make the chip itself and instead deciding to let others build it. And some have questioned whether there will be a market for Sun's new MAJC chip.

The PicoJava processor core was the first of Sun's chip designs to be released under the Community Source License, though the company only released the designs for the core of the chip, Azhari said. In the case of the MicroSparc IIep, Sun will release the designs for a complete chip.

Sun plans to release the designs of more powerful 64-bit UltraSparc chips by the end of 1999, Azhari said. Some analysts have speculated that the company would do the same with the MAJC chip as well.

A total of 1,300 people have downloaded the PicoJava design since it became available in May, Azhari said. No one has yet to licensed the chip for commercial use, but usually firms that are involved in prototype development take at least 9 to 12 months to evaluate the product, he said. "We expect firmer commitment over the next few months" from some licensees, Azhari said.

Sun also charges 3 percent royalties for sales of its PicoJava-based chips, he said.

Under the terms of the license, companies may add their own designs to the chip as long as they publish interfaces to the new features, Azhari said. Sun doesn't get control over that new intellectual property.

Most companies don't say what it costs to license their design, but MicroDesign Resources' Halfhill said it typically costs in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. One company, Lexra, which also makes chips for the embedded market, is an exception. With Lexra, it costs a bare minimum of $425,000 to evaluate the design for one project. A more comprehensive unlimited design license costs $2.25 million. If a company wants help from Lexra, those fees go up another 12 percent. And royalties for using the design run $1.35 per chip.

Lexra, which is trying to undercut the prices of the Mips chips that its products resemble, is at the inexpensive end of the spectrum, Halfhill added.

Though Sun's strategy will increase the number of companies that evaluate the chip, there's more to success than lowering that barrier, Halfhill said.

He likened the situation to Linux, an operating system that can be obtained for free. "Linux is certainly gaining ground, but you don't see this huge swaying away from Windows to Linux just because you can get it for free," because companies invest lots of time and money in their existing systems and many are reluctant to try something new, he said.