An open source chip could catch fire any day, but don't hold your breath waiting. The former Sun Microsystems opened up versions of its Sparc processor nearly a decade ago but they failed to gain significant traction. More recently, IBM said it would open up its Power architecture, but so far only one company in China has expressed interest as a customer.
The Open Core group is raising funds for an open source ASIC that runs Linux, but so far has gathered just $22,742 from 452 people, far from the million dollars or more a mask set and manufacturing run might cost.
Big semiconductor companies are jumping on the bandwagon of open source reference boards. But their chips' intellectual property remains carefully guarded corporate crown jewels.
For example, Atmel and Broadcom do not make open their processors used on Arduino and Raspberry Pi boards, respectively. More recently, Intel announced its Arduino-compatible open source Galileo board, but the Quark chip on it remains closed.
"The entire business model [for chip vendors] is protecting and selling that IP," said Oskay, who thinks the breakthrough will come from an enterprising startup or community effort such as Open Cores.
"A software organization could make open cores for a processor and have a business model selling drivers and support for it," like a Red Hat of hardware, he said. "Many of these efforts are run by a small number of people without much funding, then people get excited about something and it takes off," he added.
Creating open source chips is "not a popular sport because it's expensive." Indeed, SoCs are "one of the biggest opposites of open source hardware."
These days SoC buyers typically get access only to an API and a "proprietary binary blob" of programming software. "Even if you are the paying customer you may not be able to get access to the entire datasheet."
Windell and Evil Mad Scientist co-founder Lenore Edman prepare 555 educational kits for this weekend's Maker Faire Bay Area, where Windell will speak on behalf of OSHWA.
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