In what must have seemed to many as a bold move, Sun Microsystems last week announced that it would released the source code for its UltraSparc T1 processor under the GPL, supported by a new organization that it calls OpenSPARC.net. But to those that have been around for a while, the announcement had an eerily familiar sound to it, and that sound was the echo of an organization called SPARC International. Formed 18 years ago to license the SPARC chip design to multiple vendors to ensure second sourcing for the hardware vendors that Sun hoped would adopt it, SPARC International seemed to be every bit as revolutionary for its time as Sun's new initiative does today.
Back then, RISC chips were brand new, and several companies opted to use the new architecture as the basis for their newest and hottest chips, including Motorola, which launched its 88000 processor as a successor to its vastly successful 68000 line (the heart of the Apple machines of that era), and an upstart chip company then called MIPS Computer Systems. Central to the appeal of the new architectural design was the "reduced instruction set computer" concept that permitted a more simplified, faster design, and which lent its introductory initials to provide the RISC name.
The problem with introducing new microprocessors then, as now, is that they require the “porting” of existing software to run on them. But until there are many customers that have purchased computers using the new chips, there is little market incentive to port the software, and without the software, there is little incentive to buy the computers — a classic chicken and egg situation that made it difficult to persuade other hardware vendors to incorporate the chips into their product plans, even without the added concern that they would be purchasing them from a competitor.
Sun tried to address that conundrum with SPARC International and the announcement that it would license its designs to multiple fabricators, thus ensuring a reliable, long-term supply. Between the promise of a multiple vendors churning out chips and the support of SPARC International, which launched an ambitious branding and support program, Sun hoped that both hardware vendors and ISVs would want to catch the wave, thus expanding the market penetration of the Sun architecture.
Motorola tried a similar strategy to jumpstart adoption of its 88000 RISC chip, which entered the market late and badly needed a boost. Motorola’s strategy was to persuade multiple hardware companies (including Data General, Encore, Omron, and Harris Computer, among others) to adopt the chips, and to provide incentives to ISVs to port their software to the new environment by guaranteeing that any software could run on any vendor’s platform, provided that the hardware vendors and ISVs each tested their wares on the test suites that 88open developed.
I was a first hand witness, because in February of 1988, I got a call from Roger Cady, an old client and one of the principal designers of the DEC PDP 11. Roger asked if I could be in Austin Texas the next day to tell Motorola how to create a “consortium” to make this all happen. Given that I had helped start a new law firm only a few months before, and had no money, no clients and a non-working spouse, it seemed like the right thing to do.
Neither 88open nor SPARC International fulfilled the dreams of their founders. 88open lasted a few years and died, in part because Motorola leapfrogged the 88000 chip design with the release of a new chip line — the PowerPC, jointly developed on an IBM design by Motorola, IBM and Apple, and itself supported by a clone organization of 88open called the PowerOpen Association.
Sad to say, the PowerPC didn’t turn into an Intel killer either, but at least lives on today, although Apple recently dropped it in favor of Intel microprocessors. Like the latest SPARC design, the PowerPC is supported by a new organization as well &ndash Power.org; , which itself provides an open source license to the PowerPC architecture.
The Websites of the PowerOpen Association and 88open are long gone, and seem to have escaped even the WayBack Machine’s reach. But SPARC International’s site, looking very retro and neglected, can still be seen. Like me, it’s looking older and somewhat the worse for wear, but nevertheless, the organization appears to bravely soldiering on, with Fujitsu as its major customer, or so it seems.
I’ll be interested to see whether the SPARC International site is still there the next time I look, or whether it is quietly shut down like so many other consortia before it as the new guy is thrust into the limelight. Standards are, after all, a young technology’s game.
But hey, as they say, youth must be served. So here’s to OpenSPARC.net, and I wish it well.