October 31, 2007

China puts hopes in Loongson CPU

Author: Chen Nan Yang

China, which has long wished to develop its own computer industry, has chosen to go with Linux on the software side. Loongson is its hope for the hardware side.

The Institute of Computing Technology (ICT), a department of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), has been developing the Loongson processor since 2002. Rather than use the x86 instruction set used in chips from Intel and AMD, Loongson uses MIPS, an instruction set patented by MIPS Technologies. This means that Loongson chips are unable to run the full version of Microsoft Windows, so they run Linux instead.

Loongson-2F, the latest version of China's homegrown processor, will be released in November, according to CAS. Longsoon-2F will operate at a frequency of 1.2 to 1.5GHz, matching the speed of the low-end Pentium 4 processor while consuming only around 5 watts of power. Unlike its predecessor, Loongson-2E, Loongson-2F will support DDR2 SDRAM and USB 2.0.

CAS also says that Loongson Box, a computer with the Loongson processor but without a monitor, keyboard, or mouse, will begin mass production in early 2008. ICT has authorized STMicroelectronics to produce Loongson chips and Loongson Box. STMicroelectronics will cooperate with Mandriva and use Mandriva Linux as the operating system for Loongson Box, which also features GNOME, Wallpapoz, and gDesklets, and supports virtual desktop.

Behind-the-scenes controversy

Originally, ICT claimed that Loongson has completely independent intellectual property rights. As it turned out, however, ICT had been using the MIPS instruction set without obtaining a license. ICT asked the government to pay for the license at $200,000 per generation of Loongson chip but was refused. After failing to come to an agreement with MIPS Technologies, ICT had to stop referring to the Loongson chips as MIPS-compatible processors.

To earn back the trust of the government and the Chinese people, ICT launched many ambitious yet ultimately fruitless plans over the past two years. For example, it promised to produce a 1,998-yuan ($250) laptop for Chinese students in 2007, but finally declared that the price would be at 5,000 to 6,000 yuan ($660 to $800) when it might go on the market next year.

ICT had to resort to international cooperation to settle its trust problem. It worked with STMicroelectronics to get a proper license; STMicroelectronics had signed a licensing agreement with MIPS Technologies for the MIPS64 architecture. ICT hopes that STMicroelectronics, one of the 10 largest chip makers in the world, can help improve Loongson's production technology. In exchange, STMicroelectronics has a five-year agreement to produce and sell Loongson processors and computers in markets around the world. According to the agreement, STMicroelectronics will pay ICT $2 for each Loongson chip sold.

Loongson Box won't make inroads into the market soon because of its poor price-performance ratio. Last year, ICT trial-produced 1,000 Loongson Box products and sold them at 1,599 yuan ($210), but the price of the mass-produced Loongson Box will be higher than the trial-produced version. With display, keyboard, mouse, and CD-ROM, its price may reach $400, which is no less than many better-performing computers with Intel or AMD CPUs. Loongson's lone advantage seems to be its low power consumption.

A plus for ICT is that the Chinese government will support Loongson chips regardless of the price-performance ratio. Once Loongson chips can meet basic demand, China plans buy them for its army, government offices, and public education. In addition, some local governments have been purchasing computers for China's rural areas to demonstrate the achievement of the "new country construction." It's estimated that China's rural areas will utilize at least 6 million computers in 2007 and 2008, giving Loongson a big boost in this arena.


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