MPU Scene Heats Up
STM Buys Stake In Metaflow Tech
By Gale Bradley
San Diego--SGS-Thomson Microelectronics ratcheted up the Windows PC microprocessor competition still another notch last week, as the French-Italian IC concern acquired two-thirds ownership of microprocessor architecture boutique Metaflow Technologies, based here, for an undisclosed sum.
Microprocessor industry analyst Linley Gwennap said he believed that STM is going to take all the x86 design and manufacturing experience the company has garnered over the years working with Cyrix and use Metaflow's "dataflow technology," or out-of-order execution knowledge, to bring a differentiated PC microprocessor to market. (In other MPU developments, Sun Microsystems is bringing out a 300MHz UltraSparc-II; see story, page 67.)
STM's Piero Martinotti told Electronic News that an offering to enable a "low-cost--not low-end--PC," is in fact part of the company's plan.
But Metaflow's Bruce Lightner skirted around confirming or denying a published report that Metaflow was designing an x86 CPU to compete with those from Intel.
Mr. Lightner said Metaflow's work for STM, which started two years ago, is still under a strict non-disclosure agreement (NDA), the only difference from his point of view is that now he will say with whom they signed an NDA. Metaflow "stopped talking about what we're doing" at venues like Hot Chips and other academic conferences; "nowadays, you can't reveal these things," he said.
At its founding in 1985, Mr. Lightner said, Metaflow developed advancements like out-of-order execution, a technology that is implemented in Intel's Pentium Pro and Advanced Micro Devices' K6. "We were 10 years early on that," he said. Then, by the early 1990s, the company was owned in part by Hyundai and was developing Sparc-compatible microprocessors.
"We're no longer involved in either of those things. We're completely disentangled from Hyundai and we're no longer in the Sparc business," he said.
Mr. Martinotti, corporate VP of STM's New Ventures group, strongly indicated that STM's microprocessor intentions were centered on x86, but he did not draw that into what work Metaflow will complete for STM. "For our system-on-silicon strategy, which we call our super-integrated device strategy, we are very interested in microprocessor architectures in general, with a focus around x86."
Taking a stake in Metaflow is a move simply "to add to our intellectual property, our IP," he said. No specific STM product offerings are the target of the Metaflow work.
Meanwhile, Mr. Martinotti also said that the move fits into STM's "super-integrated device" strategy, part of which is to spin a single piece of silicon that holds an x86 core and memory, graphics and PCI bus functions to operate a Windows computer, he said. Its a strategy STM has discussed before (EN, Feb. 24).
In fact, STM is going to roll a semiconductor in the coming weeks that integrates a 486 core with some peripheral functions and this device will power a customer's industrial-use, Windows-based computer, he said.
The other one-third ownership of Metaflow belongs to the company's founders, Mr. Lightner and president Val Popescu, and to employees, including about 40 engineers.