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What exactly is CHRP anyway?

CHRP is at the heart of whether the Mac market will be freed from Apple?s competition-sapping regulation. But what, exactly, is it?

A technology called CHRP is at the heart of whether the Macintosh market will open up and become less tied to Apple's competition-sapping regulation of the clone market.

But pinpointing exactly what the Common Hardware Reference Platform (CHRP) is has never been easy since the operative definition has varied radically from year to year. Even its name has changed: it is officially known now as the PowerPC Reference Platform Specification.

CHRP began in 1993 as a quest to manufacture computers that could run a variety of operating systems (OSes), including the Macintosh OS, versions of Unix, and even Windows NT. CHRP essentially would provide the groundwork for allowing multiple OSes to run on one computer.

But the emphasis in the last 12 months or so has shifted. CHRP is now seen as a technology that will liberate the Macintosh clone market by allowing vendors such as Motorola (MOT) and Power Computing to bring out innovative Macintosh computers without Apple's broad approval and certification. Apple says this approval process is absolutely necessary to achieve complete Macintosh compatibility. But clone vendors say it is also stifling and results in major delays in marketing new systems.

A Motorola executive stated this clearly to CNET's NEWS.COM earlier in the week when he said that Motorola's new CHRP systems based on the freshly minted PowerPC 750 processor mark the end of clone era. He explained that by "clone" he meant systems that were closely connected to Apple's certification process and essentially knock-offs of Apple Macintosh systems. Motorola, he said, intends to break away from Apple's grip and out-innovate Apple with radical new designs.

But one major roadblock remains, and it goes to the heart of the question of what CHRP means: Issues must be resolved surrounding an exasperating little chip called a ROM, or Read Only Memory, chip

This ROM chip, which is controlled by Apple, has always been extremely important to the Macintosh. In the ROM chip are stored critical hardware and OS-related technologies that make Macintosh computers manufactured by a variety of vendors compatible.

The ultimate goal of the clone vendors is to eliminate the ROM and to develop "ROMless" CHRP systems where compatibility is achieved in software only. This, the theory goes, will allow them to reduce their dependency on Apple.

Phil Pompa, director of marketing for Umax, a major Macintosh clone vendor, explained the situation in an interview earlier this week with NEWS.COM. Though he says the Macintosh OS 8 will require a "CHRP ROM" and that all systems Umax has currently planned have a ROM, over time the ROM will be eliminated, he said.

The elimination of the ROM means that CHRP will run on anything designed to the standard. "We can use a different chipset, different [hardware interfaces]," he said. "It allows us greater flexibility in design."

Another source at a major clone vendor said this week that Apple is working on a subsequent version of OS 8 that would be based on "CHRP 1.1," which would put the ROM features in RAM (main memory), "where ROM code is loaded off the [hard disk] drive into RAM."

But the source is also worried about Apple delivering this. "We can't get a firm delivery date," the source said.

Nevertheless, he added, the main benefit is that it keeps things relatively simple. "CHRP 1.1 would certainly make it easier. Apple used to do a technical evaluation that made sure the Apple design wasn't changed to the point it broke the OS. Now [with ROMless CHRP] they don't have to do that," he said.

"This makes it much easier; it's a much better process. New products get out there faster," he added.

But a word of caution is in order. Apple is in the throes of major changes, and whether Apple will help this clone market come about or not has been called into doubt by some in the industry.

The operative phrase for CHRP right now is "only time will tell."