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.

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Mil & Aero Magazine

June 2015
Volume 26, Issue 6

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