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MontaVista and QNX Open Up Open-Source

Open-source software development is all about community. “Crowd sourcing” of content and talent is all the rage these days, and various social media have made it easier to collaborate with people you’ve never met. Little wonder, then, that software companies have opened their virtual doors to all comers.

A case in point is MontaVista, a long-time supporter of open-source Linux, especially for embedded systems. The company has launched Meld, an online community for embedded-Linux developers, and not necessarily just users if its own products. MontaVista has shown admirable restraint in making Meld a community for all comers, regardless of application, industry, or corporate affiliation. (And no, the URL is not www.meld.com; it’s meld.mvista.com)

Meld is a particularly slick example of so-called Web 2.0 features. It goes beyond the basic message-board format and includes some interesting “friend finder” features that help you decide who’s reliable and who’s not. Meld also makes it easy to locate other members working on projects similar to yours or who are using the same processor, for example, or the same RTOS. It even displays members in a kind of “degrees of separation” graph with you at the center surrounded by programmers with similar interests, tools, or projects. Very slick.

Another example of collaborative information exchange is QNX Software Systems’ peculiarly named Foundry 27. Like Meld, Foundry 27 is an online community of like-minded developers, though this one is a bit more traditionally formatted and focuses on QNX users only. You can find it at www.foundry27.com.

AMCC Does the Work For You

When is a product not a product? When does an evaluation board become more than just a technology demonstrator? And when does your supplier become your competitor?

These are all questions I found myself asking after I met with AMCC at the Embedded Systems Conference (ESC) to hear all their new announcements. One that struck me in particular wasn’t just a new microprocessor. It was a whole frickin’ computer.

First, some background. AMCC, as you may know, is a chipmaker. They design and sell PowerPC processors as well as an array of interesting networking chips. In fact, AMCC got into the PowerPC processor business when it acquired IBM’s midrange 405- and 440-series embedded PowerPC processors. Since that time, AMCC has expanded and extended the original IBM product line with a slew of new PowerPC processors of its own design. These guys have been busy.

Like any self-respecting microprocessor company, AMCC makes evaluation- and demonstration boards available to its customers. You know the kind: smallish rectangular boards with lots of connectors for logic analyzers, oscilloscopes, and plug-in add-ons, designed for tinkering, evaluating, profiling, debugging and all-around low-cost development. The idea is that you buy one or two of these eval boards, cobble together some code and a few peripherals, and if you like the result you place an order for ten thousand chips. Everyone lives happily ever after.

Here’s where AMCC’s new “evaluation board” is different. Instead of a quick low-cost kludge, this one is a completely thought-out file server, including the sheet metal, power supply, operating system, drivers, fans, and the whole nine yards. It even comes with a sexy front panel. Literally the only thing you need to do is add your own logo and – hey presto! – you’re in the file-server business.

And that’s precisely what AMCC expects its customers to do: slap a logo on the front panel and manufacture the entire product as-is. For the price of the eval board the company gives away all rights to the design including the circuit board schematics and any AMCC-developed software. (Most of the remaining software is open source.) There’s nothing left for you to design – apart from that logo, of course.

Naturally, the file server contains a not insignificant number of AMCC chips. That’s how the company gets paid for its generosity in nearly giving away the design. Should you put this product into production you’ll be buying a fair number of AMCC chips along the way. Everybody wins.

What’s My Name Again?

But this raises some interesting questions about the role of vendor, customer, and OEM supplier. Normally AMCC’s role in product development would end with the PowerPC processors and the networking chips. It’s your job, traditionally, to put them all together in an interesting, useful, and (hopefully) unique arrangement. And it’s perhaps someone else’s job to mass-produce this design and to sell it through a retail or distribution channel. But if AMCC has done all the design work, it essentially cuts out the middleman: the design engineer. Now, a completely spec’ed-out design can go straight to manufacturing. Which enables a lot of low-cost manufacturers with channel access to enter a new and fairly technical market. Interesting…

I suspect this kind of “design help” will catch on in a big way. It speeds time-to-market for both the chipmaker and the mass-producer. By cutting out the interim design step, the end user gets his product that much faster. The only down side is that the products themselves will be undifferentiated. Apart from the logo they’re identical. But that’s okay from AMCC’s point of view. If anyone wants to redesign the box, they’re welcome to do so, but it’ll cost them time and money, making them later to market and more expensive than the “vanilla” competition. Perhaps a good tradeoff, perhaps not. In an age of highly integrated devices and consumer marketing, how much value do the engineers really add?

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