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Buy a Processor; Get an Operating System

Everybody’s making deals these days. Fast-food joints have “value menus.” Hotels are offering two-for-one deals; ailing Internet retailers will cover the cost of shipping; desperate SUV dealers are probably ready to offer sexual favors in exchange for a test drive.

We’ve got red-hot deals in embedded processors, too. Freescale has hung out the banners, inflated the balloons, hired the clowns, and shouted, “we must be crazy!” Their gimmick: buy a microprocessor – get a free operating system.

Yup, that’s right. If you buy one of Freescale’s brand-new ColdFire 5225x chips, you get a free license to the Precise MQX real-time operating system, complete with drivers and network stacks. This is no mere “try and buy” development license, either. It’s a full-on production license that you can use in shipping products, no strings attached.

Crazy, you say? Crazy like a fox, maybe. Freescale has recognized that embedded developers need more than just a chip. Any reasonably complex embedded system is going to run an operating system of some type, even if it’s just an in-house kernel or task scheduler. Why not supply the RTOS with the chip and make life easier for the developer? It’s one less thing for developers to worry about and one more thing to differentiate Freescale from its many competitors. If Brand X just sells chips but Brand Y also gives me an operating system… It’s the sizzle that sells the steak.

Besides, the cost to Freescale is probably minimal. Apart from the added support overhead, Freescale doesn’t really bear any out-of-pocket expenses. That’s part of the charm of software distribution: it costs nothing to stock, store, or ship product. The incremental cost of production is zero. So if a few free RTOS licenses help sell more chips, the company is ahead.

From the developers’ side, there’s no requirement to use the free RTOS. Running MQX on ColdFire is never mandatory. If you like the look of the ColdFire chips but have already pledged allegiance to another operating system, that’s no problem. You waste nothing by throwing the MQX license away.

Here On the Hardware Side

So far the free-RTOS deal is available only on Freescale’s newest 5225x chips. Eventually, however, the company plans to extend the offer to every chip in the vast ColdFire family. With dozens and dozens of different ColdFire chips already in the catalog and with more coming all the time, that promises to be a daunting porting task for Freescale’s software engineers.

The whole ColdFire family started out as a watered-down, RISC-ified version of the company’s wildly popular 68K family of 32-bit processors. As RISC fever gripped the nation, Freescale (which still called itself Motorola at the time) needed a new processor to satisfy the masses. It came up with two: PowerPC and ColdFire. PowerPC was developed in cooperation with IBM and Apple, while ColdFire was purely an in-house operation. The two-pronged strategy seems to have paid off. PowerPC is now one of the more popular 32-bit embedded processor lines available and ColdFire is doing pretty well for itself, too. There are now so many different ColdFire chips the average programmer can’t keep track of them all.

Even though ColdFire started out as a stripped-down and streamlined version of the 68K architecture, “creeping featurism” has bulked it up over the years. If anything, the ColdFire instruction set is now more complex than the old 68K architecture it replaced. That’s fine, and unless you’re a hardcore RISC fanatic, it’s an improvement. Not many companies have the guts to press the big Reset button and overhaul their bread-and-butter products and still live to tell about it. Freescale’s done just that, breathing new life into one of the oldest 32-bit processor architectures in existence.

Anyway, the new 5225x family sits at the midrange of the ColdFire product line, well below PowerPC in terms of price and performance. Clock speeds are in the 66- to 80-MHz range and prices start around $5 in quantity. There are (or will be, eventually) several variations of the 5225x family, with the final x replaced by a different digit for each different chip. All the chips (so far, at least) come with on-chip Ethernet, USB, CAN, encryption hardware, lots of flash memory, SRAM, JTAG, analog converters, timers, PWM, and the usual assortment of serial interfaces and debug features. Plus that little something extra.

Meanwhile, On the Software Side

The MQX operating system is a popular choice but far from the only game in town. The company that makes it, Precise Software Technology, competes with at least a dozen other RTOS vendors for the large and lucrative market of ColdFire users. (Full disclosure: Precise Software was acquired by ARC International while I was ARC’s VP of Marketing. I was not involved in the Precise/Freescale deal.) If MQX had been an obscure or little-used operating system, Freescale’s giveaway may still have swung some chip sales its way. As it is, the combination should be a sweetheart deal to the segment of the market that already uses MQX – and which used to pay separately for their operating system.

As part of the deal, customers now get their support from Freescale, not Precise. Customers wishing to buy additional MQX software licenses (such as for other ColdFire processors not currently covered under this offer) buy those from Freescale now, too. In short, Freescale is now a full-fledged RTOS reseller offering sales, service, and support for the MQX operating system running on its processors. For non-Freescale architectures, MQX customers still talk to Precise or one of its resellers.

What remains to be seen is how this deal will affect other RTOS vendors. Quite a few of them – Express Logic, CMX, Green Hills, IAR Systems, Mentor Graphics, and others – have been loyal supporters of Freescale and the ColdFire family for many years. How will they feel when Freescale starts giving away a competitor’s product?

One conclusion is that it may not matter. Embedded developers tend to be very loyal to their favorite RTOS. So loyal, in fact, that they’d switch processors before they’d switch operating systems. If that’s the case, then packing MQX into every ColdFire box may not lead to many religious conversions or lost RTOS sales. Current MQX users will thank their lucky stars but ThreadX users (for instance) will simply toss the MQX license away without a second thought. It’s all upside for everyone concerned. At best, Freescale wins sockets. At worst, it spends some time and money supporting software that few customers want. Actually, the worst case is that Freescale antagonizes all the other RTOS vendors who’ve contributed to ColdFire’s success, but that’s not likely. In this symbiotic business the RTOS vendors need Freescale just as much as it needs them. Neither side is likely to walk away over a minor tiff.

Either way, embedded developers win again.

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