Technology

Toward the Chips of Tomorrow


It takes a ton of money and brainpower to keep the tech industry chugging along -- which explains a Jan. 12 announcement by heavyweights Sony (SNE), Toshiba (TOSBF), and IBM (IBM) that they'll jointly develop the next generation of semiconductor technology.

The threesome had worked together over the past five years to bring out Cell, the revolutionary new chip designed from the ground up for multimedia applications running on networks. That chip, which cost them $400 million to bring to market, is expected to see action this spring with the introduction of Sony's PlayStation 3 video-game console (see BW Online, 12/22/05, "Sony: Shooting From the Chip?").

SHRINKING CHIPS. Now the partners jointly plan to develop breakthrough semiconductor designs and materials that will enable the next generation of Cell processors -- plus other chips -- to fit on ever-smaller pieces of silicon. The work will happen at IBM's Yorktown Heights Research Center and at its advanced chip-fabrication plant and the government-backed Albany Nanotech Center both in New York. "We're doing fundamental research," says Lisa Su, vice-president for semiconductor R&D at IBM. "People don't know how to do this yet."

Analysts hailed the announcement as an important event in the annals of the tech industry. They expect the partners to spend several hundred million dollars, at least, over the next five years.

"This is the first public commitment by anybody in the world to 32-nanometer technology," says Richard Doherty, director of the market research firm Envisioneering Group. Today, most chipmakers are using 90-nanometer designs -- meaning the width of the smallest circuit wire is 90 nanometers, a fraction of the width of a human hair.

KEEPING PACE. Chip giant Intel (INTC) is confident that it will stay ahead of the Cell trio with each successive generation of technology. As the world's No. 1 chipmaker, it has already begun volume manufacturing at 65 nanometers and is building two new $3 billion fabs for 45-nanometer production. The first Cell chips are expected to be 90-nanometer designs, and later this year shift to 65.

"We're extremely confident we have the leadership today and are very confident we'll have the leadership on the next node of the processor roadmap," says Intel spokesman Chuck Mulloy.

At this point, few companies can afford such massive development efforts on their own. That's why most are teaming up to pool their money and expertise. "There are a lot of tough problems to be solved," says Kevin Krewell, editor-in-chief of Microprocessor Report, a top technical newsletter. "We need new innovations to keep Moore's Law working."

Moore's Law, the rule-of-thumb that chip processing power will double every 18 months, has driven the economics of the high-tech industry for the past 40 years. But in recent years, with each new generation, the time it takes to double performance has stretched out, and chipmakers have relied on all sorts of materials and design changes to keep pace. For instance, the shift from aluminum to copper as the base metal in chips in 1998 was a major watershed.

VIDEO POWER. Now, IBM and its partners seek the next big bang. "We're looking for the next copper," says IBM's Su. For starters, like Intel and others, they're developing a class of materials generically called high-k that minimizes the leaking of electrons between tightly packed circuits, which, in turn, heats up the chips and wastes power.

In addition to fundamental chip design advances, the three partners are focusing on innovations applicable to the consumer-electronics sphere. The idea is that they can get further by pursuing both goals at once. Analysts say they expect the initial Cell processor to be at least twice as powerful as the traditional processor IBM designed and built for Microsoft's (MSFT) recently released Xbox 360 gaming console (see BW Online, 10/25/05, "Inside IBM's Xbox Chip").

"It's an amazing chip," says Krewell of Microprocessor Report. That will result in much richer 3-D graphics in games played on the Sony console. The goal in the future is to produce the same kind of performance advantages for a next generation of consumer-electronics products, including high-definition TV sets and portable video players.

IN THE GAME. Intel doesn't have a comparable chip to Cell. Instead, it's concentrating on a new generation of multimedia processors for PCs, called Viiv (pronounced vive), which it announced in early January. "On Cell, there's not really anything to answer," says Intel's Mulloy. "It's targeted at games and embedded devices, and not on the mainstream server, mobile, and PC sectors."

Yet as powerful and successful as Intel is, it may not want to be too dismissive of Cell, say some analysts. IBM is providing processors for all three major game consoles -- from Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo -- and Sony's PS3 alone is expected to consume more than 100 million Cell chips over the next few years.


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