Hello PC/104 Consortium? We've gotta talk

With the approval of OpenSystems Publishing’s Editorial Board, I’m revealing key facts, some suppositions, and a few recommendations for my magazine’s namesake: the beloved PC/104 Consortium. Working together, vendors, customers, and ecosystem partners can get this train moving back on the right track.

Full disclosure: I was a paid consultant for the PC/104 Consortium for a short time in 2004.

This is a sensitive topic (something about biting the hand that feeds you?). But at the PC/104 Consortium’s recent general (public) meeting, the president’s briefing highlighted a number of zingers that can’t be swept under the rug any longer. So with the approval of OpenSystems Publishing’s Editorial Board1, I’m revealing key facts, some suppositions, and a few recommendations for my magazine’s namesake: the beloved PC/104 Consortium. Working together, vendors, customers, and ecosystem partners can get this train moving back on the right track.

Market growth?
That’s right: we’re stuck. Informal discussions with many PC/104 vendors reveal that the market for PC/104 boards isn’t growing, and vendors that are experiencing growth are generally doing so at the expense of their competitors by “stealing” market share. If what marketers call the total available market is not getting any bigger, then the PC/104 ecosystem suffers, including its consortium.

Tactics that steal market share tend to depress prices overall and devalue companies’ products – a short-term gain at the expense of long-term market health. But the darned thing is this: the market for Small Form Factors (SFFs) is growing! That is, countless new systems from handheld Internet appliances to drugstore kiosks to embedded military “shoeboxes” are using SFFs for their embedded electronics. Organizations such as VITA and PICMG are working on sponsored specifications for COM Express, AdvancedMC, MicroTCA, and VITA 56 (a variation on PMC).

In fact, at the January 2007 meeting in Long Beach, California, MEN Micro asked VITA to standardize two new SFF modules: ESMexpress and Universal Submodule (USM). In both cases, the form factors were synergistic with VITA’s ongoing efforts and member companies, and MEN hoped that VITA could help market and support the ecosystems for these boards. Discussions are ongoing, but this was by no means an isolated case. I track no fewer than 68 SFFs, including the handful under the PC/104 Consortium’s control. But this leaves more than 60 other SFFs, and I’ve added 10 in the past 12 months alone. Clearly, the market for standardized SFFs is growing, else these vendors wouldn’t waste their money.

Consortium activities
At the recent annual meeting, PC/104 Consortium president Jonathan Miller raised five key issues plaguing the consortium:

  • Inadequate member participation … limits the ability to achieve goals
  • Lack of connection with members
  • Lack of member benefits reduces the consortium’s value
  • Severe risk of ISA obsolescence … threatens the viability of PC/104
  • Mission is limiting; PC/104 is mature

He cited membership statistics showing a decline from 81 paid members (of all levels) in 2005 to 59 in 2007. Worse, four executive members (board of director types) changed their status, and the category of observer members was dropped. Using the rates found on the consortium’s website, this is a financial decrease of more than 25 percent, which can’t possibly leave enough cash to do anything proactive after management expenses are paid (website, dues, accounting). In summary, the membership defections substantiate Jonathan’s assertions that the consortium’s not offering enough value.

Consider this: According to www.PC104.org, the consortium’s last activity was listed in a press release dated September 2006 when it adopted the EPIC Express specification (which was actually created by five member companies). Prior to that, the consortium adopted EPIC in January 2005 … about 18 months earlier. Not much activity in a year and a half. Today, the hot topic in the consortium is “PC/104 Express” – an incarnation of adding PCI Express to PC/104.

However, this proposal is at an impasse because the handful of companies involved can’t resolve connector issues and other details. Conversations I’ve had with parties involved don’t paint an optimistic picture for a quick resolution. At fault: the consortium’s rules that allow a protracted technical discussion with no mechanism to cut it off, vote, and move on.

Recommended priorities
Jonathan was succinct in his recommendations for getting the consortium train moving again. The top priority is to address ISA obsolescence. I know that at least one member company has an ISA IP core that – for the right deal – could be made available to all members. But the consortium needs a way to broker this. Current bylaws make this a gray area, so it’s strictly hands-off for now. Wrong answer; change the rules before the market dries up.

The second priority is to implement PCI Express with “widespread acceptance.” Next, hire a spiritual leader for the consortium, followed by increasing member benefits by adding value (my emphasis). Finally: expand the mission to “include all SFFs.” Heck, there are at least 60 others to choose from.

I know that the market’s hungry for what the PC/104 Consortium’s member companies can provide; that’s why so many build other products. But it’s up to the consortium to set the direction, remove the now-obsolete infrastructure obstacles, evolve PC/104, and add value to its members and the market by creating more SFF standards beyond merely PC/104. Notice this magazine’s name is PC/104 and Small Form Factors. That’s a hint.

1OSP is the publisher of this magazine.

Chris A. Ciufo
PC/104 and Small Form Factors