The move borrows elements of a software-development movement in which the underlying computer instructions used to create programs is given away. The Linux operating system and other Internet programs have spread rapidly through this "open source" process.
Sun plans to eliminate the existing upfront licensing fee for its microprocessor designs in hopes of attracting a broad new community of developers. In particular, Sun aims to reach academic researchers and startups that couldn't normally afford Sun's existing fees, which can easily run into the millions of dollars.
Developers who license the technology will be free to modify Sun's designs and to incorporate them into more complicated chip designs. Companies that sell products based on the designs ultimately will face licensing fees, but only when they move to commercial production. "The idea is to put state-of-the-art technology in the hands of the innovators of the world, in a business model that allows them to quickly innovate without a lot of cumbersome legal and financial details," said Marge Breya, Sun's vice president of marketing and business development for microelectronics. Under this new model, "there can be very fast, rapid innovation" in chip design, she said.
Sun first plans to release the design for its PicoJava chip, intended to help programs written in Sun's Java language run faster, later this month. It will follow by releasing designs for its line of 32-bit Sparc microprocessors this summer, and the 64-bit line of UltraSparc processors by the end of the year. Advocates of open-source software say it produces better technology in less time. Linux, in particular, has been tweaked by a world-wide community of software hackers.
Sun appears to be the first major chip maker to extend that concept to microprocessor designs, which are frequently guarded like state secrets by their developers. Analysts said they weren't aware of any other major chip makers that have distributed their core chip designs as freely as Sun now plans.
"It is certainly revolutionary and radical," said Michael Slater, principal analyst at Microdesign Resources, a research firm. "It's a clever ploy for getting a whole lot of attention." While Slater said he was unconvinced that Sun's new model will have much impact on the broader microprocessor business, other analysts praised the effort. "It's a brilliant move by them, one that will certainly spread their technology far and wide," said Will Strauss, an analyst with Forward Concepts, a Tempe, Ariz., market-research firm.