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Will anyone want Sun's multimedia chip?

A new processor architecture could enhance the way video and audio are delivered to the home, but, unfortunately for the company, not many people may need it.

A new processor architecture presented today by Sun could enhance the way video and audio are delivered to the home, but, unfortunately for the company, not many people may need it.

The MAJC chip architecture, outlined by Sun Microsystems at the Hot Chips conference, will be the cornerstone of the company's ambition to build a "media" processor--an embedded chip fine-tuned for video, audio, computer graphics, and other multimedia. Media processors will be used in television set-top boxes, digital TVs, and game consoles.

"This architecture is designed to deliver high-performance, low-cost processing over a very broad set of applications, from multiprotocol network infrastructure devices to the consumer's living rooms," Mel Friedman, president of microelectronics at Sun, said in a prepared statement. "Sun's design team worked on development of the MAJC architecture for nearly four years to ensure that this project would come to fruition."

Besides processing media, MAJC chips will take better advantage of programs written in Java, the highly touted technology from Sun that is being used by various Web sites, according to the company.

But, while the overall chip design promises competitive innovations, Sun may face a more formidable barrier: making a profit. Intense competition, the availability of alternatives, and the low cost of the devices that will host these chips translate into low prices for the processors.

"Ultimately, these chips have to be sold for $20 or so," said Peter Glaskowsky, graphics analyst with MicroDesign Resources. Other analysts concurred that commercial success could be difficult.

Historically, media processors have not faired well. One of the pioneers in the field, Chromatic Research, was sold to graphics chip maker ATI in October 1998 after drastic cutbacks. While Chromatic's chips were technologically elegant, the software tweaks required to incorporate it made it a difficult choice for computer makers.

The "emotion" engine coming from Sony and Toshiba, as well as the Map 1000 processor from Equator, are examples of next-generation media processors. Unlike Sun, these companies already appear to have the commitment or interest of customers. Sony will use the emotion chip in the PlayStation 2 while Hitachi is examining the Equator processor for a digital TV, said Glaskowsky.

Still, Glaskowsky noted that the MAJC architecture will bring some interesting innovations to the market. MAJC chips will be able to perform some level of "speculation," a technique in which the processor can read software instructions in advance and improve overall performance. Chips will also be able to read four instructions at once.

Sun has presented the architectural concepts behind the chip, leaving more details for the Microprocessor Forum in October. Samples, and possibly products, will follow in 2000, according to Sun and others.

In 1997 and 1998, Sun sought industry support for a Java processor for TV set-top boxes and other so-called embedded devices. The chip, however, failed to catch fire in the marketplace. Sun licensed the designs of the chip to manufacturers, but products have yet to emerge.

The MAJC architecture differs from the Java chip architecture. A Sun spokesman, while acknowledging the cost issue, said the chip will offer better performance and will be easier to program than the alternatives, such as embedded microprocessors or digital signal chips.

Further, the spokesman added that future prices could change because many potential devices that would use the chip have yet to be released.