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IBM to broaden PowerPC licensing

If successful, the licensing business could help establish the processor more firmly in the marketplace, boosting it against competitors such as the ARM and MIPS chips.

IBM's microelectronics division plans to begin offering one of its PowerPC chips to interested third parties under a new licensing plan.

IBM has been edging toward a broad licensing program for PowerPC for a while. But to date, the company has licensed the chip technology to only a few companies, such as Xilinx. The new plan, dubbed the open PowerPC licensing program, will offer the chip to a much wider range of potential customers.

Ultimately, a successful licensing business would help IBM establish its PowerPC processor more firmly in the marketplace, boosting its position against competitors such as the ARM and MIPS chips as well as rival companies like Motorola and Intel, an IBM representative said.

IBM also took its customers' needs into account when evaluating its licensing program.

"What we're seeing is that it's expensive (for companies) to do processor design and maintain a leading-edge road map" on their own, said Lisa Su, IBM Microelectronics' director of PowerPC and emerging products.

IBM, Su said, can provide its customers with the PowerPC processors they need at lower cost than if they were to develop their own.

"The idea is to provide a path for customers to use PowerPC chips in a wide range of applications," Su said. "We've been on this path for a while. Now we want to expand to the next range of customers and applications."

The open PowerPC program also has ties to IBM's new chip foundry initiative, through which IBM Microelectronics offers its manufacturing techniques, facilities and engineers to third-party chip companies that don't have their own manufacturing facilities.

Aside from meeting customers' needs and its own market share goals, the open PowerPC program will funnel customers to the IBM foundry business, Su said.

Under the foundry program, IBM will offer to manufacture the chips for licensees at its facilities. It also intends to allow licensees to manufacture the chips elsewhere, a company representative said.

IBM is currently in the process of certifying outside foundries, Su said.

While PowerPC chips are found in a wide range of computing devices, including handhelds, networking equipment and big servers, the company plans to limit the program initially to its PowerPC 400 series processor cores. These system-on-a-chip processors, which include a processor core, memory and other elements needed to power a device, are typically not used in desktops or servers.

Instead, they power devices ranging from PDAs and set-top boxes to printers and networking equipment. The PowerPC 405LP, for example, is the heart of a new hardware development kit for Linux PDAs.

Though IBM is also "open to licensing across our road map, the 400-series is the one we think makes the most sense," Su said.

Other Power PC chips, such as those in IBM's PowerPC 700 family, are designed with more specific applications in mind and are also more expensive than the PowerPC 400 family, Su said.

IBM has also signed agreements with Cadence Design Systems and Synopsis, which will make design tools and consult on issues such as device design with customers who wish to license the PowerPC.

PowerPC licensees will also be able to add features or make changes to the processor, should they desire, Su said.

When it comes time to sign an agreement, customers should expect to see terms and projected cost savings from IBM that are comparable to those offered by other companies, such as MIPS Technologies or ARM, Su said.