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Life after NT for PowerPC

Motorola eyes a new network computer and Windows CE devices for its PowerPC processors as it retreats from the market for systems running Windows NT.

As it retreats from the market for Windows NT systems, Motorola (MOT) is seeking a new raison d'etre for its PowerPC chips in the market for network computers and Windows CE devices.

Motorola says it is studying a reference platform--or design model--for network computers that is being promoted by IBM. NCs based on this reference platform use a PowerPC processor and can run small-scale operating systems such as Microware's OS-9.

The company is also looking into the market for handheld devices that run Windows CE--a stripped-down version of Windows 95--including the possible development of a device for surfing the Net, a Motorola spokesperson said.

Motorola and IBM are the two primary manufacturers of PowerPC chips. But the companies are facing shrinking markets for their processors in the traditional PC space, which is increasingly dominated by Intel processors.

Now that both IBM and Motorola have decided to phase-out their systems that run Windows NT on top of PowerPC boxes, Motorola must look for other high-profile platforms if it is to continue pushing the PowerPC as an alternative to Intel's chips. While Motorola is continuing to advance the price-performance ratio of its chips--a 300-MHz PowerPC chip is in the works for next year--it is losing the marketing war.

As of yesterday, the rapidly growing Windows NT market is now abandoned to Intel and, to a lesser extent, Digital Equipment Corporation and its Alpha processor platform.

Long-heralded plans for the PowerPC Platform specification, formerly known as the Common Hardware Reference Design, or CHRP, appear to be proceeding at a distressingly slow pace for the PowerPC's chief promoters, IBM and Apple Computer. The PowerPC Platform is intended to provide a system design that would use the PowerPC chip and run multiple operating systems, including the Mac OS and Windows NT.

With these two avenues blocked, Motorola is left to try to clamber onto the bandwagon for two other computing platforms--NCs and Windows CE handhelds--that many expect to form important new sectors in the semiconductor market.

What is still unclear is whether Motorola's strategy is to make its own devices or to become a major supplier of processors and peripheral devices such as modems for the new market, said Diana Hwang, an analyst at of International Data Corp., a marketing research firm.

The Motorola spokesperson did say a Windows CE device the company is "taking a look at" might run a small-footprint version of Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator.

Motorola announced recently that it is discontinuing its Envoy and Macro handheld computers because of disappointing consumer demand. Windows CE, however, offers the potential for a larger market based on a common operating system. Microsoft and Motorola have already announced that Windows CE is being ported to the Motorola MPC 821 and 823 PowerPC processors.