- By: Ken Gracey Published: 15 August, 2014 0 comments
A week ago Parallax made a release that some of our customers considered a surprising change for the business - we gave away the Verilog code that defines the Propeller 1 Multicore (the P8X32A). The release could potentially empower person or any company with enough financial resources to make a copy of our most valuable “intellectual property,” the first all-custom microcontroller Chip Gracey designed called Propeller 1.
What’s the relevance for most of us? The actual Verilog code release is initially of interest to a small number of people and wouldn’t be interesting to everybody, at least not just yet. Parallax customers include students, hobbyists, electronic engineers and biologists. But at some point, what we make touches all of our customers. Specifically, organic efforts like this one could produce a new Propeller 1.5 design with applications in robotics, energy, Internet of Things, unmanned aerial vehicles and biomedical devices. If that happens, then everybody would benefit from another series of Parallax microcontrollers and educational materials. Of course, we’re still in design with the Propeller 2 in the meantime.
Prior to making the open-source decision, we discussed the idea internally for several months to be certain that we properly evaluated the range of possible outcomes. Our staff with MBA degrees performed “Strength, Weakness, Opportunity and Threat” types of analyses with sober and rewarding possibilities. The technical people (engineers, nerds) viewed it entirely from an enthusiastic user perspective, maybe even missing some of the business impacts. Both viewpoints are critical.
In the end, the final decision to release had everything to do with empowering the community. Further, Parallax isn’t interested in patents but we certainly value the “prior art” needed to defend ourselves from large companies who claim our creativity is actually their patented material. To share and establish our prior art, we put the Propeller 1 design on the internet under a very free GNU General Public License v3.0. The best defense against patent trolls is prior art, if you’re willing to let the lawyers engage.
So far, the first week of our release has been very well-received, but there were a few differences between what we thought would happen from our prior discussions.
For example. . .
Will the internet will be silent when we release the Propeller 1 Verilog?
One fear was that we’d release the Propeller Verilog and nobody would notice. Or, that our commercial customers would feel their trust in Parallax had been violated because we’d shared the design of the chip in their products. Instead, the community responded very favorably!
- Parallax forum members voiced very strong support and enthusiasm. These are the same developers who’ve created our software tools, source code, and documentation for the Propeller 1.
- Limor Fried of Adafruit stated on the “Ask an Engineer” video that “the Propeller 1 Verilog is code you can modify on an FPGA - this is one of the first modern chips I’ve heard of that has actually been open sourced which is actually on the market - very cool!” Phillip Torrone reports “you can now do a fully open project all the way down to the chip”.
- Hackaday caught on quickly with their story at and is excited to see what modifications the community creates around the Propeller 1.
- Twitter feeds quickly reached over 250,000 people and Parallax web traffic was 5x normal levels for the weekend. I have hardly any Twitter followers so this was another surprise.
- Sacramento Bee published Rocklin Firm Releases Design of Prized Multiprocessor to World!
- Elektor Magazine reported in their story "Some Chips are too Good to Hide" that “Engineers and hobbyists benefit everyday from free, open source designs for a greater good. Some would think that open-sourcing your developments is not a smart move, but in reality, what happens is that you give away a small piece of knowledge to the community, and what you get in return is considerably bigger. “
- DEFCON 22 was the public location where the open-source news was released among 14,000 people in the opening ceremony “Making of the Badge” and “PropLANE Encryption Hardware” presentations. The Propeller was featured on the badge in Wired Magazine’s Meet the Puzzle Mastermind who Designs the DEFCON Badges and Forbes had a picture of the Parallax badge in Hacker Couture at DEFCON.
One of our long-term forum members (Heater) posted:
I have been reading and posting on this forum for years like a demented monkey or spam bot. I go out for a couple of hours for a beer and come back to find six new pages in this thread. And I have no idea what happened! Am I dreaming or did Parallax just release the Verilog files for the P1 as open source? If so this is mind bendingly HUGE. It's a world first. It's the first time ever one can buy, make or hack actual open source hardware based on an MCU.” (Heater has already set up the GitHub for hosting Propeller Verilog code variants.)
It seems that the release was well-received among the right audience. By contrast, we published a general press release that didn’t get much traction in consumer news, but the audience we needed to reach through the internet caught on very quickly. I guess we’ve finally confirmed that mainstream media isn’t all that useful to us unless they’re a local news outlet.
Customers may not not know what to do with Verilog code. . .or do they?
We had three reasons for making this release, all of which were described on the Propeller 1 Open Source Page. The third reason we provided was:
To open up the Propeller design to community contributors. Our compilers, programming tools, languages, and some of the Propeller 2 design features were created by the community. Supporting and honoring their efforts is a top priority for Parallax.
The thought was that the developers who have done so much work to create our Propeller programming tools (SimpleIDE, PropellerIDE, OpenSpin, GCC compiler) would have extra bits of information about the design to make their programming tools closely tie to the Propeller’s architecture. We knew they’d take an interest in the Verilog for this purpose, but we didn’t know if they’d look further into the design of the Propeller 1. As it turns out, they have a comfort level with Verilog and seem to understand the design. Not only did they find a bug in the file we released, they quickly made a few modifications to port the design to other FPGAs from Xilinx. One customer has already added Port B to the Propeller 1 for 64 I/O pins.
How well do they understand the Propeller design and what might this mean to the community? From what I’m reading on the Propeller 1 Verilog forum, I believe there is a very real possibility that a Propeller 1.5 design could emerge as the first community-designed open source multicore chip. While we’re not basing our business plan or revenue on this possibility, some of the possibilities Chip finds feasible include adding the following to the Propeller 1 Verilog code:
- Multiply function
- Port B expansion for 64 I/O pins
- Higher speed
- Code protect
- Analog input
While the analog input isn’t possible to synthesize in an FPGA, it’s possible that some of Parallax’s Propeller 2 design could be used in a Propeller 1.5 design.
If it ends up looking like a Propeller 1.5 is possible, we would formalize a specification and Chip would provide final arbiter role on the features for consistency with the Propeller design philosophy. With many people involved in the design, this is the best way to ensure that the result isn’t a clunky-looking camel but a sleek stallion that stands up on his rear legs!
What about the really bad things that might happen as a result of this release?
There’s a list of these possibilities, too. They include things like:
- Another company could manufacture the existing design in whole without honoring the GPL v3.0 license terms, undermining our small market and flooding the world with low-cost Propeller chips. Chinese suppliers are always mentioned, yet the Propeller doesn’t have significant traction in Chinese manufacturing and design circles.
- Technical support for the Verilog code would be immense, beyond our ability. While we released it without corporate support, you can still find Chip on the forums to answer questions.
- Commercial customers would feel their designs could be exposed. This has proven to be not a concern.
Time will tell the story because it will write itself!
While the initial impressions are positive that we made the right decision, we may not know for many years. Truthfully, we’re a bit of a passenger on our own Propeller 1 open source bus so we’re still figuring out who’s driving this segment of the trip!
Ken Gracey, CEO
P.S. A huge thanks to Chip, Jeff, Jen, Karen, Daniel, David, Courtney, Jen, Stephanie and every single developer on our forums. Steve Denson has been tremendously valuable to the community for the PropellerIDE tool. This tool allows us to claim a full hardware-to-software open source system. I don’t think such an open environment exists anywhere else for a microcontroller.