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Motorola to license M-Core processor

Upcoming "major" licensing programme could shift Motorola chips into open source world

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Motorola is preparing to offer its M-Core line of embedded Risc processors to other developers through a wide-ranging licensing programme, The Register has learned. While licensing chip cores to third-parties isn't an entirely new venture for Motorola -- companies can already form partnerships based on the use of its 680x0-based Coldfire and PowerPC processors -- the M-Core announcement is likely to be rather more important. For a start, M-Core is one of the key hardware platforms for Symbian's EPOC 32 operating system. Secondly, Motorola's manager for wireless markets on the M-Core team, Kyle Harper, hinted that the licensing programme will be a corporate Motorola announcement rather than a Semiconductor Products Sector (SPS) show. Harper refused to comment on what the announcement, which is due to be made in the "April to May timeframe", might involve, but it's clearly going to be major. M-Core was launched 15 months ago, and has already won $2 billion worth of business, according to Motorola, most of it from companies previously using other embedded processors, most notably StrongARM. The Motorola chip was designed specifically and from the ground up for highly compact, very low power consumption embedded applications, such as portable GPS systems, smartphones, cellphones, palmtops and pagers. That, said Harper, meant the chip has to deliver a high number of MIPS:MegaHertz ratio through high code densities. Harper claimed that chips based on M-Core running at a nominal speed of 33MHz (high for embedded systems, particularly where a maximum battery life of "weeks" is critical) would consume 0.28mW of power, half of what an equivalent speed StrongARM would use. He also cited statistics showing that on to perform a complex real-world application, Chinese handwriting recognition, an ARM chip would require 1MB more code than M-Core and would execute it in 50 per cent more cycles -- and that's using the ARM Thumb instruction compression technology. All this makes M-Core a particularly appropriate platform for the kind of mobile communications devices Symbian, in which Motorola is an investor and technology partner, is promoting EPOC-32 for. EPOC-32 currently runs on StrongARM, but Harper said Motorola and Symbian were currently porting the OS to M-Core. Symbian clealy had some input in the design of the chip itself, much as Apple did with the development of the PowerPC 750 (aka G3). And M-Core is to become the basis for all of Motorola's consumer electronics and communications products. M-Core is currently made available to companies seeking customised chips and in a standard configuration, with four or five more standard configurations, each aimed at specific application areas, due before the end of the year. Next month's licensing programme should extend the chip's reach even further. Harper suggested that current licensing deals differ from other intellectual property licences in that they're not about mining a single royalty stream but focus more on leveraging other areas such as chip design and production. Given the company clearly makes little money up front -- "We'll have a very low bar to entry," said Harper. "The up-front investment for a partner will be minimal." -- that suggests Motorola could be seriously considering Sun's new approach with UltraSparc and releasing M-Core under some kind of open source licence. Specifications and programming tools would be made available to anyone, generating revenue only for Motorola if the results make it to market. That the announcement will be a major Motorola corporate deal suggests the company may offer other technologies under a similar arrangement. ®

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