More Power[PC] to Ya!

In 1991, it was the PowerOpen Consortium, and the goal was to create open standards on top of a proprietary architecture. Now, in 2005, its, and the processor is the same (the IBM PowerPC), but this time the name of the game is "Open Hardware." Will the model take off like open source?

Its time for some time travel again, campers. Our temporal destination for today: October, 1991!


As we emerge into the past, we see the presidents of Apple Computer, Motorola, and IBM high-fiving each other on stage as they announce that they have signed a landmark technology sharing accord. Under that agreement, IBM and Apple will jointly develop the PowerOpen Specification, based on IBM’s AIX operating system and the “PowerPC” RISC chip designed by IBM. Motorola will fab the chip, Apple will use it in its Macintosh line, and Big Blue will base its RS/6000 workstation on the same chip as well. With everyone on the same platform, ISVs should (they hope) find it worth their while to rapidly port software to the new platform, and end-users will have something to run on their shiny new boxes.


Thus, in one fell swoop, the three partners hope that they will finally be able to break the WinTel industry stranglehold, outflank Sun’s own RISC based SPARC Station initiative, revive Motorola’s and Apple’s fortunes by replacing the Motorola 6800 silicon line with a hot new processor, and leapfrog Motorola’s sputtering 88000 RISC chip effort, which Apple had never bought into.


They also form the PowerOpen Consortium (modeled on the 88open Consortium, which I helped form in February of 1988). PowerOpen would create standards to make it even easier for platform vendors to design computers based on (and therefore commit to) the PowerPC chip line, and for ISVs to port software to the PowerPC architecture.


OK, back briefly into our trusty time travel pod, and fast-forward a year. The presidents of all three companies are now gone, and (to a greater or lesser extent) all three companies are now backpedaling away from the alliance (and from Taligent, the licensing company that they had also formed). By then, 88open had petered out, and I was now representing the PowerOpen Consortium, which I continued to do until it, too, died quietly in the dark.


All right, enough of that. Let’s head back to the future/today, and what do we see?


Despite the fact that there are supposed to be no second acts in America, we see…a new PowerPC consortium, this time called And this time, the organization isn’t about creating standards on top of a proprietary architecture. This time, it’s about “open hardware.”


Open hardware??


Yes, open hardware. What a difference a decade, and an open source software movement, can make.


The new PowerPC organization’s mission has the same basic business goals as before (bring the industry away from one architecture and onto another), but the strategy now is not to get end users to switch from one proprietary platform to another, but to switch off a proprietary platform entirely to one that’s commonly controlled. In short, “open hardware.” Or, as the mission statement phrases it:’s mission is to develop, enable and promote Power Architecture technology as the preferred open standard hardware development platform for the electronics industry and to administer qualification programs that optimize interoperability and accelerate innovation for a positive user experience.

Does open hardware have a future? Well, it has a start, with Or perhaps a stop and start, given that entered the game not long before the Open Source Programmable Logic initiative went down. (And speaking of down, the Open Cores site is either down (or gone) tonight as I write this.) But the early signs are that is off to a vigorous start, with Novell, Red Hat, Sony, Cadence and many others (besides IBM) as members.



So what does “open” mean when we’re talking about hardware? That may still be evolving, even within IBM. Notwithstanding the effort, Juan-Antonio Carballo, partner in IBM’s venture capital group, is quoted in an article in Electronic Engineering Times as making “an eloquent pitch for open hardware” at the Electronic Design Processes workshop last month. In that pitch, he is quoted as saying: “The open-source model is quickly extending from software to hardware, and it will provide a similar swell of collaborative innovation.” But the article goes on to say:




The word “open” has various meanings, Carballo explained. It includes but is not limited to open source, where specifications or source code are freely available and can be modified by a community of users. It could also mean that the hardware details can be viewed, but not modified. And it does not necessarily mean that open hardware, or designs that contain it, are free of charge.

Well, I guess if people ever get tired of their polite exchange of ideas about what “open” means in the software arena, they’ll have plenty of opportunity to engage in some friendly debate over in hardware land.





Stay tuned.