Sun Microsystems is distributing the basic designs of its two major chip architectures: Sparc and PicoJava. This is analogous to what's happening in the Linux world where computer code is basically free. Netscape also does this with its Mozilla Project code.
The company will make tools and reference materials for its processors available for download beginning at the end of this month.
"We'll proliferate this technology much more widely than the way we would under the old model," said Harlan McGhan, manager of architecture marketing for microelectronics at Sun.
The licensing terms let people use the information for research purposes, requiring royalty payments to Sun only when people actually ship products, McGhan said.
"Anyone can download, modify, and synthesize the processors for free. Sun will charge a royalty only if customers ship the processors for revenue," according to Jim Turley writing in the Microprocessor Report's Embedded Processor Watch.
"In the old days, Sun told start-ups and small companies, 'Thanks for your interest, now come back when you're big enough.' Now we don't have to say that," said McGhan.
"The maneuver is not unlike the open-source movement that is growing in popularity among software developers. Like Linux, Apache, Netscape's Communicator, and other software products, the 'source code' for 'synthesizing' Sun's processors will be free for the asking," according to Turley.
After downloading the data, users may alter the core of the PicoJava or Sparc processors in any way, even if they break a basic level of compatibility--called binary compatibility--with other Sparc or Java processors.
"Users will be encouraged--but not required--to give any such modifications back to the community, so that third parties may benefit from the enhancements," Turley said.
There is an important distinction compared to Linux, however. The design freedom does not extend to shipping products. Before customers can make chips and ship for revenue, they must demonstrate compliance.
Moreover, royalty terms must be negotiated with Sun before any chips ship based on the downloaded designs. Royalty rates are negotiated on a case-by-case basis.
The PicoJava-I technology will be available for download at the end of March. Sun expects to make Sparc technology available by midyear, according to Sun's McGhan. By the end of the summer, the designs for a 32-bit UltraSparc chip will be on the Web, and the last microprocessor family, the 64-bit UltraSparc, will be up by the end of 1999, he said.
"On the surface, it appears to be a good move to broaden the appeal of Sun's two processor families. Developers can evaluate SPARC and Java processors with no up-front cost or risk." Turley said.
Sun's plan is similar to the way Sun is releasing the source code of the Java 2--the original programming instructions before they're converted into the low-level languages spoken by computer chips.
Until today, licensees had to pay an up-front royalty, a large impediment to companies without lots of money, lawyers, or time, McGhan said.