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IBM sees Power processor as its next Linux

Despite losing Apple, company works to build coalition to nurture Power processor adoption

IBM hopes to do for its Power processor what it helped do for Linux: create a bigger market in which lots of vendors can play, and earn more money for IBM in the process.

A long-planned meeting in Europe to discuss the push opened several days after Apple Computer announced that it will phase out PowerPC chips from its Macintosh computers and switch to Intel processors instead. The timing was unfortunate for IBM and did little to promote its message that Power is a chip for all systems, from supercomputers to PCs and handheld devices.

"From a marketing perspective (the Apple announcement) put a bit of a damper on the 'Power Everywhere' logo," said Gary Barnett, a research director analyst company Ovum.

However, the Power.org meeting went on as planned last week, and IBM announced that 11 new members have joined the consortium set up in December for organisations developing Power-based chips, systems, software and tools. IBM also said last week that it would release the main specifications for the Power-based Cell processor, which it developed with Sony and Toshiba.

Momentum behind Power has been building since IBM released specifications and design tools for its Power processors early last year.

Playing down Apple's decision, IBM argue that PCs account for only a small proportion of all processors sold. The company’s goal is to propagate Power in what it sees as faster-growing markets such as set-top boxes, gaming consoles and automotive applications. Power-based processors have been picked for the next gaming consoles from Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft.

By releasing the Power specifications, IBM hopes other companies will create custom Power processors, for example, with adjacent chips for encryption or graphics processing. The Power.org group, which also includes providers of manufacturing services and software, will help ensure compatibility between components and tools, allowing products to be reused rather than designed from scratch.

However, important issues are yet to be decided. For example, it is unclear yet whether companies developing Power-based components will have to pay fees to IBM for its Power designs. "

Ovum analyst Barnett has high hopes for Power.org but said it faces several obstacles. Among them, IBM needs to come up with a governance model that "is not too bullying but keeps enough control on the tiller to stop Power going off at right-angles," he said.

"Power.org is still a tiny little baby. They need to get it breathing, give it its own momentum, get it walking, and then make it run," Barnett said.

Still, Power.org is "fascinating and chockablock with potential" because it could offer system builders a faster, more affordable way to design high-performance processors, Barnett said.

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