Why Would Microsoft Hire a Chip Expert?

A troubled Silicon Valley company’s pain seems to mean Microsoft’s gain. For a while last year, there was a conga line of senior talent leaving Yahoo and heading to Redmond. Now Microsoft is benefiting from the troubles at Sun Microsystems with an unusual pickup.

Marc Tremblay, a Sun fellow and chief technology officer for its Microelectronics unit, is joining Microsoft as a “distinguished engineer.” Tremblay quit the company last week but was only confirmed as a Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) hire this week, by the New York Times.

Sun (NASDAQ: JAVA) did confirm to InternetNews.com that Tremblay has resigned and his replacement is Rick Hetherington, who has served as co-CTO for Microelectronics with Tremblay.

“We thank Marc for his many contributions over the last eighteen years and wish him all the best in his future endeavors. Hetherington has been with Sun for more than ten years and has served as co-CTO for the Microelectronics business unit for two years,” Sun said in a statement.

Tremblay is an 18-year veteran of Sun and has been one of the main architects for Sun’s Sparc line of processors. He was involved in all of the recent developments, including Victoria Falls 1 and 2, Niagara 1 and 2, and the delayed “Rock” processor.

One way to measure his impact on Sun: he was awarded his 100th patent back in 2005, more than any other Sun employee, including Java creator James Gosling. By contrast, AMD CEO Dirk Meyer holds 40 patents and Intel’s Pat Gelsinger holds a dozen.

Microsoft confirmed Tremblay’s hiring, saying he would join Microsoft as a distinguished engineer and will work in the Strategic Software/Silicon Architectures group, reporting to KD Hallman, general manager. “This group is part of Craig Mundie’s organization. Marc will help oversee cross-company technical task forces and strategic direction for the company’s software and semiconductor technologies,” said Microsoft in a statement e-mailed to InternetNews.com.

The need for hardware expertise

The idea of a software company hiring a microprocessor expert may seem odd, but there is some semiconductor-related work going on at Microsoft, notes one analyst.

“Microsoft does do work on microprocessors for their games division,” noted Nathan Brookwood, research fellow with Insight 64. “The Microsoft Research people here in Mountain View had a big role in putting together the processor in the Xbox 360, and Microsoft, because of its activities in system architecture and server architecture and game consoles, could clearly use someone like him.”

Microsoft’s Silicon Valley campus is between Sun’s two major campuses in Menlo Park and Santa Clara, so Tremblay wouldn’t have to go very far if indeed he does end up working at the Silicon Valley facility.

Even though Tremblay’s focus has been Sun’s Sparc processor, which is an inherently different design from the x86 platform Microsoft supports, Brookwood said not to typecast him as a “Sparc guy.”

“He’s a guy with a lot of experience in microprocessor architecture. A decade ago he was involved with the MAJC project at Sun. That was one of the very first multithreaded Java-oriented implementations. In many ways, it predated things that were done with Niagara and Rock.”

Brookwood added that Hetherington, Tremblay’s replacement, is a veteran chip engineer and “no slouch.”

MAJC, or Microprocessor Architecture for Java Computing, was a Sun project to design a multi-core, multithreaded microprocessor for running Java applications. It was going to be known as the UltraJava processor, but Sun gave up on the project. Some of its ideas, however, resurfaced in the Niagara processor line.

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