IBM and Freescale Semiconductor aim to boost the Power processors architecture by aligning their chip design efforts.
Senior executives at the two companies announced Feb. 6 an alliance under which they aim to create a common power architecture instruction set and align their chip road maps.
Freescale will also join Power.org, the open Power processor development organization, designed to further Power chips.
The alliance, which mirrors past efforts by the companies, is designed to bolster their current positions—IBM is particularly strong in enterprise computing and also game systems, while Freescale is dominant in networking, communications and markets such as automobiles—and to more energetically pursue new markets.
But instead of serving one customer, they hope to serve many, particularly in the consumer electronics space.
Going forward, “We are going to have engineers working together. In fact, we have had engineers working together throughout the years to maintain some level of compatibility,” Michel Mayer, CEO of Freescale, said in a joint press conference.
However, “We may very well find spaces where it is to the benefit of our customers for us to align and do joint [processor development] work.”
Indeed, IBM and Freescale—then Motorolas semiconductor arm—at one time pitched in to design PowerPC chips for Apple Computer.
But, over time, their alliance petered and their interactions were much less involved.
IBM pursued high performance servers, set up a chip design and foundry service, licensed several of its PowerPC designs, and found new business from game console makers Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft.
Freescale continued to pursue networking and automotive. About half of the worlds automobiles will have a PowerPC chip somewhere inside them in 2007, Mayer said.
But they also received a blow in losing Apple, which was still one of their highest-profile processor clients, to Intel.
The computer maker began moving to Intels x86 chips earlier this year and plans to switch over fully by mid-2007.
But Mayer and John Kelly, IBMs senior vice president of technology and intellectual property, both downplayed the loss, saying it freed up resources to pursue other interests, including the budding market for digital gadgets inside the consumer electronics space.
“You never like to lose a customer,” Mayer said. However, “It was not a good use of our resources to compete with Intel. We let AMD do that. They do that well.”
Whereas the companies will work together more closely, they will also endeavor to work more with third parties.
Another part of their alliance includes a commitment to do joint work on software.
There, they will establish a formal effort to foster running the Linux operating system on Power chips.
They will also collaborate with others as members of Power.org.
IBM established Power.org in late 2004 after making a move to make its Power architecture more open.
Open chips, the company maintains, can foster performance gains by improving the design of overall systems, because numerous parties can work more closely together on hardware, software and tuning.
Power.org serves as a virtual community around the architecture. It can provide device makers with a Power-based processor core, then allow them to add various elements of their own or from third parties, and secure device design and manufacturing services, thus avoiding the need to create systems from the ground up.
But Power.org is also charged with steering Power processor technology, particularly no that Freescale is onboard. Upon joining, the chip maker was granted founding member status inside Power.org.
“We intend to leverage that open community as a platform to collaborate with IBM and others,” Mayer said.
By joining, Freescale will be able to participate in things such as Power.orgs Power Architecture Advisory Council, which manages the roadmap for the chip architecture, and makes changes based on member feedback.
The “committee takes input, decides on changes and brings it back to community,” Kelly said.
“We will not let the architecture be fractured such that applications and clients are dealing with many different types of architectures. We are controlling it so that it doesnt become a multi-headed monster.”
Meanwhile, at the outset, the alliance isnt going to change much for existing IBM or Freescale products or the customers who use them.
IBM will announce more details on its Power6 server processor, for example.
The two companies will announce more details on their alliance, including their plans for products, at a later date, the two executives said.
Although Mayer indicated that Freescale may not license the Cell chip, created by IBM, Sony and Toshiba for game consoles and other computing and consumer electronics devices.
Freescale may, at some point, develop complementary chips, however, he said.