Remembering Motorola embedded computing

John Keller, Editor in Chief

It was with some sadness in late September that I read of the effective demise of the Motorola embedded computing operation in Tempe, Ariz. Parent company Motorola Inc. is selling its Embedded Communications Computing (ECC) business for $350 million to Emerson Electric Co. in St. Louis, which will make ECC part of company’s Network Power segment to strengthen Emerson’s position in the embedded computing industry.

Yes, I know; this had been expected for a long time. I doubt if the sale came as a surprise to anyone. In many ways, the Motorola embedded computing group made its own bed by betting too heavily on telecommunications, and for neglecting the growing popularity of Intel microprocessors in embedded applications.

Still, I didn’t want to ignore the passing of this industry pioneer that perhaps more than any other company helped establish and nurture the VMEbus embedded computer architecture that continues to be a cornerstone of military and aerospace electronics applications.

When we look at the VME giants of today-companies like GE Fanuc Embedded Systems in Charlottesville, Va., and Curtiss-Wright Controls Embedded Computing in Leesburg, Va.-sometimes we forget that Motorola once was the biggest kid on the VME playground, and was a leading supplier of rugged VME single-board computers for military and aerospace applications.

Through the 1990s Motorola was one of the largest-if not THE largest-seller of VME boards. Market Researcher Venture Development Corp. in Natick, Mass., for example, surveyed the industry in 1997 and found that Motorola led sales in a field of more than 100 VMEbus merchant board vendors with 22 percent of the market.

The other major VMEbus board vendor that year was Force Computers, which Motorola acquired seven years later from Solectron.

When it comes to VME, in fact, Motorola was one of the first in the market. We could even argue that the company was the first. The VME technology open standard was launched on 21 Oct. 1981 by Motorola, Mostek, Signetics/Philips, and Thomson CSF, according to VITA, the open standards organization in Scottsdale, Ariz.

VITA once stood for the VME International Trade Association, but now is simply called VITA. VME technically stands for Versa Module Eurocard, yet it is rare for anyone to refer to this architecture by anything other than simply VME.

According to VITA, the four companies that launched VME in 1981 announced that year a 16-/32-bit parallel computing bus that was loosely based on the Motorola 68000 processor bus. The goal was to have a cooperatively developed, public-domain standard for embedded computing backed by an independent organization to provide stewardship and strong promotion.

Motorola helped grow VME through the 1980s using its 68000 microprocessor family, and later its 88000 microprocessor family as the basis of well-known lines of embedded processors.

Remember, the 1980s and early 1990s was the era when custom-designed proprietary computer architectures dominated military and aerospace applications. Modular open systems like VME were considered novelties, and plenty of people wondered why Motorola bothered competing with the prime contractors of the day who for the most part designed embedded computers internally. Recall also that no one at that time knew-or had heard of-commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) equipment.

What we now know about Motorola and a few other companies of those days is they were doing COTS before the term was even coined. It wasn’t just Motorola that was providing rugged, military-quality, open-systems, and off-the-shelf VME single-board computers. Others in that game in the early 1990s included Radstone, DY-4, and Vista Controls-once well-known names that now have become part of GE Fanuc and Curtiss-Wright.

Of the early rugged VME embedded computer companies, Aitech Defense Systems Inc. in Chatsworth, Calif., is one of the few that still exist today as independent companies.

In the early ’90s, when Motorola was king of the VME embedded computer market, the VME databus was still in its infancy. The architecture then involved a 32-bit parallel databus; VME 64 was still on the horizon. There were other standard architectures for military applications then-SEM-E was one of them-but it was VME that would come to dominate.

The Motorola Computer Group, as the company’s embedded business came to be known, probably peaked in the early-to-mid 1990s. By late that decade the company’s fortunes in the embedded computer market started to turn.

Like many other embedded computer companies of the late ’90s-many of which that haven’t been around now for years-Motorola heard the siren song of a booming telecommunications market, fueled by the dot-com bubble. That’s where the company’s resources went, while military, aerospace, and other applications languished.

When the dot-com bubble burst and the telecommunications market crashed early this decade, Motorola embedded was not positioned to move back into the markets where the company previously had been strong.

Motorola engineers and business leaders did give it a shot, however, and in so doing helped give rise to what we now know as the VXS standard for high-speed serial interconnects over a VME backplane.

Motorola’s initiative was called the VME Renaissance-an attempt to breathe new life into venerable VME architecture. The embedded computer industry ran with the idea, and Motorola’s VME Renaissance ideas later evolved also into the VPX standard, as well.

For Motorola, however, the VME Renaissance initiative was too little, too late. In addition to putting all its eggs into the telecom basket, the company’s VME offerings upgraded exclusively to the PowerPC microprocessor from the company’s 68000 and 88000 processors, and did not take advantage of the Intel Pentium family of microprocessors that started to become popular in the VME world.

When the dust finally settled, Motorola was a shell of its former self. It had neither the business model nor the product offerings to pull out of its tailspin. Its demise was inevitable. Many in the industry are surprised that Motorola embedded held out as long as it did.

There’s a business lesson here, but I’d rather not go down that road just now. Perhaps for one last time I’d like to acknowledge the Motorola embedded computer business as the influential pioneer it was, and to point out that without Motorola, the VME embedded computer business would likely be much different than it is today.

Military & Aerospace Photos

Most Popular Articles

Related Products

CHAMP-FX4 6U OpenVPX Virtex-7 FPGA Processor Card

The CHAMP-FX4 is the flagship 6U product in Curtiss-Wright Defense Solutions’ family of user-prog...

PMC-E2001 Audio/Acoustic Waveform Generating PMC Card

PMC-E2001 Delta-sigma PMC features 16-bit resolution with 8 Analog Outputs and 4 Analog Inputs wi...

VPX3-453 3U VPX Virtex-6/8640D Digital Signal Processor

The Curtiss-Wright VPX3-453 is a high performance 3U VPX DSP and FPGA processor card that combine...

SBC-K7 Embedded PC for Instrumentation and Control

The SBC-K7 is an ideal platform for embedded instrumentation that combines an Atom PC running Win...

CPU-PPC460EX-VME Processor Board

The CPU-PPC460EX-VME PowerPC processor board is designed for rugged, conduction and convection co...

PC/104 SBC and Peripherals

Kontron PC/104 Standalone Single Board Computers (SBCs) serve in every format, even with consiste...

General Micro "Horizon" C299

The C299 Horizon is a third generation, 6U cPCI SBC module based on GMS’ upgradable CPU technolog...

Rugged Mobile Communications Server

Advanced communications server designed to be deployed in environments where it needs to meet cer...

RR2P Removable Canister RAID System

Transportable data storage for mobile field use aboard planes, ships and ground transport. 2U, du...

API DC Link Power Film Capacitors

High reliability DC link capacitors for power inverter applications which require superior life e...

Related Companies

Curtiss-Wright Defense Solutions

About Curtiss-Wright Defense Solutions Curtiss-Wright Defense Solutions (CWDS) is a long established techno...

Innovative Integration

  Since 1988, Innovative Integration has grown to become one of the world's leading suppliers of DSP and data ac...

Beyond Electronics Corp

Beyond Electronics(BEC) provides Rugged COTS board and system level solutions in various small form factor products c...


Driving the world’s embedded computing platforms Kontron is a global leader in embedded computing technology.&n...

General Micro Systems Inc

Since 1979, General Micro Systems has been providing the most diverse line of single-board computers in the industry....

Elma Electronic Inc

Who we are...   About Elma Electronic Systems   The Systems division of Elma Electronic Inc. supplies the

Winchester Systems Inc

At its founding in 1981, Winchester Systems introduced its first 5 MB disk system for Intel development system users....

API Technologies Corp

Who We Are API Technologies is a dominant technology provider of RF/microwave, microelectronics, and security technol...

Extreme Engineering Solutions Inc (X-ES)

 Extreme Engineering Solutions, Inc. (X-ES) is a leader in the design, manufacture, and support of standard and ...

Falcon Electronics

Distributes military, hi-rel and space-grade semiconductors including ARINC 429/1553 databus products, power supplies...
Wire News provided by   

Press Releases

Low Viscosity, One Part Cyanoacrylate Is Non-Toxic and Meets ISO 10993-5 Specifications

Master Bond MB250NT is widely used for a variety of applications ranging from repair to high speed producti...

Thermally Conductive, Two Component Epoxy Passes USP Class VI Tests and ISO 10993-5 Specifications

With biocompatibility and cytotoxicity certifications, Master Bond EP21AOLV-2Med is often selected for bond...

One Component, Snap Cure Epoxy Features High Strength Properties

Suitable for a variety of applications in the electronic, aerospace and OEM industries, Master Bond EP3SP5F...

One Part Epoxy Resists up to 500°F and Meets NASA Low Outgassing Specifications

Master Bond Supreme 12AOHT-LO is a one component epoxy for a variety of bonding and sealing applications in...

VICTORY Shared Processing, Fire Control Computer, and Switch for Ground Vehicles Introduced by Curtiss-Wright

Curtiss-Wright Corporation today announced that its Defense Solutions division has introduced a new fully i...


Curtiss-Wright Corporation’s Defense Solutions division applauds Northrop Grumman Corporation (NYSE: NOC) o...

Curtiss-Wright’s New Rugged Mobile IP Router Subsystem Features an Integrated Cisco® 5915 ESR Router

Curtiss-Wright Corporation today announced that its Defense Solutions division, a Cisco® Systems Solution T...

GE Announces First Sub-Credit Card-Sized Multi-Function High Definition (HD) Video Tracker

HUNTSVILLE, AL.— OCTOBER 13, 2014—GE’s Intelligent Platforms business today announced at AUSA (October 13-...


Meeting the Gen3 backplane challenge with OpenVPX and COTS

Tight Pentagon budgets mean military systems must stay in the field for longer than ever before. This doesn't mean obsolete technology, however. Today's military electronics are being upgraded constantly, an...
Sponsored by:

Design Strategy Considerations for DO-178C Certified Multi-core Systems

Join Wind River to learn how system architecture and design choices can minimize your DO-178C certification challenges.

Sponsored by:

Flying, Sailing or Driving - The Rugged, Embedded Intel-based Server that goes where you need it!Flying Sailing or Driving

Leveraging the power of server-class processors is no longer relegated to the confines of data centers. Through several innovations, Mercury Systems has ruggedized Intel’s server-class chips for deployment. ...
Sponsored by:

All Access Sponsors

Mil & Aero Magazine

April 2015
Volume 26, Issue 4

Download Our Apps




Follow Us On...


Military & Aerospace Electronics

Weekly newsletter covering technical content, breaking news and product information

Cyber Security

Monthly newsletter covering cyber warfare, cyber security, information warfare, and information security technologies, products, contracts, and procurement opportunities

Defense Executive

Monthly newsletter covering business news and strategic insights for executive managers

Electronic Warfare

Quarterly newsletter covering technologies and applications in electronic warfare, cyber warfare, optical warfare, and spectrum warfare.

Embedded Computing Report

Monthly newsletter covering news on embedded computing in aerospace, defense and industrial-rugged applications

Unmanned Vehicles

Monthly newsletter covering news updates for designers of unmanned vehicles