Cathie Anderson: Rocklin firm releases design of prized multiprocessor chip to world

Cathie Anderson
Cathie Anderson

Microchip designer Parallax did something unthinkable at last week’s Def Con event, often described as the largest continuously running hacker conference.

In an industry where even decades-old chip designs are carefully guarded, the Rocklin-based company released the source code design for its powerful Propeller 1 microprocessor. In online forums, developers hailed the news as a turning point for those who want to create truly open-source hardware.

“There’s a trend toward open source,” Parallax CEO Ken Gracey told me in an interview just before the Las Vegas convention. “You’ve seen it in software. It’s also true in hardware. People right now want to buy things they can see into, and where they feel there’s no hidden intellectual property.”

Developers can change or even reproduce the Propeller 1 processor, even for commercial use, Gracey said. If they do use it commercially, they must share their processor design or negotiate a royalty with Parallax. Gracey said he and his brother, Parallax founder and Propeller chip designer Chip Gracey, are hoping their chip will be the basis for the first open-source multicore microcontroller in production.

Heading into Def Con, Ken Gracey actually seemed a bit more concerned about another piece of company news: the company’s Propeller microchip was going to be the brains behind the coveted conference badges worn by each attendee. Gracey said there was nothing scarier and nothing more exhilarating. At Def Con, attendees do not register by name. Rather, their badges are integrated circuit boards that can be programmed to wirelessly communicate information. Hackers show off by programming them to run other devices and by cracking a mystery challenge programmed into the devices.