Sun to intro ‘open source chips’ licences

No up-front licence fee, don't start paying till you're selling product

Sun is to take a step towards what you might call open source hardware. According to US reports, later today the company will announce that it will distribute its chip designs for free. They won't however be entirely free in the long term, as licensees will have to pay fees once they're actually selling product. But Sun's move could stimulate take-up of its chips considerably, as it will allow small design outfits to start with Sun blueprints and then design their own custom versions of the chips without their having to make up-front investment. Sun will release designs for its PicoJava chip first, in the next few weeks. This will be followed its 32-bit line, and then 64-bit UltraSparc by year end. But although Sun's initiative is being seen in some quarters as a massive innovation, it more properly represents a honing of what the company is doing already. Sun has allowed Sparc licensees to produce their own versions of the chip for years now, the initial idea having been that a loose coalition of workstation manufacturers could produce wider-ranging innovation and achieve greater mass than one company holding its cards close to its chest. To be blunt, that hasn't worked. In the low-cost market it has worked, for ARM rather than Sun. Sun will clearly be aware of this, so maybe (especially considering PicoJava is first) the move is directed at ARM. Sun has also introduced the 'pay us once you're selling gear, but not before' licensing model in its Java software operations, so there's a logic to extending it to hardware. Still, from the marketing point of view, 'open source chips' is a neat move. ®

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