While start-up picoTurbo Inc. has introduced its first embedded-core design for licensing, a lawsuit threatens to derail the company before it gets up a head of steam.
picoTurbo, an intellectual-property company in Milpitas, Calif., has rolled out the pT100, a 32-bit RISC microprocessor core that the company says can execute the ARMv4T instruction set.
However, ARM Inc., whose U.S. headquarters are also in Milpitas, has attempted to block picoTurbo's progress by filing a patent- infringement lawsuit against the company in a federal district court.
The suit, disclosed the same day picoTurbo began publicly disclosing its plans, was immediately discounted by picoTurbo employees.
"Any peripherals that have been developed for the ARM-microprocessor cores will integrate efficiently and seamlessly with picoTurbo products," said Ernie Besso, the company's vice president of sales and marketing. "At the same time, picoTurbo products have been developed in a clean-room environment and are original works of development based upon a unique RISC architecture."
Meanwhile, ARM reported it will back its patent claims against picoTurbo. "More than 35 of the industry's leading semiconductor and systems companies have already taken licenses from ARM, and we intend to vigorously enforce our patent rights to ensure that ARM and its partners obtain the full benefit of this investment," said Robin Saxby, ARM's chief executive, in a statement.
The dispute is remarkably similar to one between Lexra Inc., which claimed that its products were compliant with an older version of the MIPS instruction set, and MIPS Technologies Inc., the instruction-set designer.
That suit was settled when Lexra agreed not to term its LX 4 and 5 series of embedded microprocessors "MIPS-compatible," but MIPS filed a related patent-infringement suit against Lexra last November. Lexra is fighting that suit, and has filed its own counterclaims against MIPS.
According to p icoTurbo, the company's technologies are based on patented designs. In a statement issued after the suit was filed, picoTurbo said its "products have the ability to execute the ARM instruction set, but were designed to avoid the ARM patents."
Of the three ARM patents named in the suit, two describe the very specific way that ARM separately decodes 16- and 32-bit instructions, while a third patent describes the interaction with interrupt functions, the company said.
"picoTurbo designs those functions entirely differently, and are designed for superior performance and lower prices," the statement read.
Designed for high-performance, low-power system-on-a-chip designs, the performance of the pT100 is enhanced by a five-stage, pipeline micro-architecture and a configurable 32-bit multiply-accumulate unit, picoTurbo said.
Power consumption is reduced by a static design with integrated power-management hardware that automatically shuts down the processor's unused sections, according to the company.
"We've produced test chips to verify our designs in hard, firm, or soft formats at several foundries in both 0.25-micron line- width and 0.18-micron line-width processes," Esso said. "We'll offer licenses to a wide range of companies from fabless semiconductor companies to ASSP and ASIC foundries."
While picoTurbo's connection to ARM may potentially raise patent-infringement issues, picoTurbo's offerings fulfill a price-sensitive niche in the RISC-processor market, which largely serves consumer-device applications, said Max Baron, a senior analyst at In-Stat Group, Scottsdale, Ariz.
"picoTurbo's licensing and royalty fees may translate into significantly lower-priced ARM devices," Baron said. "A chip maker licensing picoTurbo's technology could thus save $1 to $2 per unit in manufacturing costs thanks to lower licensing fees picoTurbo may offer."
Esso, however, would not disclose the company's licensing or royalty policies. "Pricing is confidential and proprietary," he said.
Personal mul timedia devices that require high-performance, energy-efficient microprocessors helped to drive embedded-RISC processors' unit growth by 52% in 1998 and 176% in 1999, according to picoTurbo. From 2000 through 2005, sales of embedded-RISC processors should grow in excess of 100%, compounded annually, it said.
picoTurbo was founded in February 1998 by Hong Yi Chen of Sun Microsystems Inc.. The company's acting chief executive is Chieh Chang, who was formerly director of technology at Cirrus Logic Inc. The company does not disclose its financial partners and investors.
According to company reports, picoTurbo's team members have previous microcontroller-design experience; some helped develop the AMD K6, PowerPC, Sparc, and Sun.