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MIPS chips take new course

The chip designer plans to make it easier for customers to adapt its basic processor technology for consumer electronic devices.

Chip designer MIPS yesterday unveiled plans to make it easier for customers to adapt its basic processor technology for use in smart phones, handheld devices, and networking equipment.

Under a new strategy, MIPS will license three new processor technologies. Jade will be a 32-bit processor design for small handheld devices; Opal a 64-bit technology suitable for low-end set-top boxes; and Ruby a 64-bit technology based around a new architecture that will end up in the most complex classes of Internet appliances and game players.

The lineup revolves around the differences between a complete central processor unit (CPU) design, which is what MIPS licenses now, and a processor "core," which MIPS will license in the future, according to Gideon Intrater, director of product marketing at MIPS.

With the announcement, the Silicon Graphics spin-off appears to be overcoming early struggles and establishing an identity of its own. The company held an initial public offering in the spring, which initially floundered. At the time, reports emerged that Nintendo was replacing a MIPS graphics chip with a competitor's product. Nintendo represented more than 67 percent of MIPS' revenue.

Subsequently, however, the company began to land design deals. The stock has since climbed from around $14 to $21.

A complete CPU is just that--licensees purchase a chip design that can be turned into a working chip. Though comprehensive, complete designs do not allow licensees to improvise.

Processor cores, by contrast, allow licensees to come up with their own technology for ancillary chip functions, such as how the data input-output systems operate, in order to suit unique design needs. Improvisation is possible, because the functions have not yet been integrated.

MIPS anticipates the market will support the latter approach. "There are multiple potential customers who would like to design their own CPUs," Intrater said.

The Jade and Opal cores will consist largely of technology found in MIPS' current chip designs, said Intrater. Ruby, however, will consist of an entirely new design. Devices that might feature the Ruby core include interactive set-top boxes that incorporate game players and Internet access.

The new cores will come in varying degrees of completeness. Customers will be able to get complete CPU designs, stripped-down cores, and variations between the extremes.

Along with ARM and Hitachi, MIPS has become one of the leaders in chips for handheld computers and set-top boxes. Chips based around designs from these companies are popular because they consume little power and don't cost much.

So far, the MIPS chips have found favor in Microsoft-based devices. "MIPS has more [Windows] CE than anyone," said Intrater. The company's designs have also been used in the Sony Playstation.

"MIPS has actively pursued the segments of the market that have the most growth opportunity," said Jim Turley, embedded processor analyst with MicroDesign Resources.

Despite these victories, the company has yet to win favor with Nintendo again. Nintendo has chosen Artx, which was formed by former SGI employees, to supply graphics chips for its next generation of game players. MIPS formerly supplied this chip.

Sources at Artx and MIPS have said that MIPS is a candidate to supply the microprocessor for these systems but no decision has yet been made. MIPS in the meantime has postponed pursuing a copyright infringement suit against Artx.