'Supercomputer-on-a-chip' to power consumer devices

IBM, Sony and Toshiba are teaming to create a chip to power a digital broadband future. Hello PlayStation4?

IBM, Sony Computer Entertainment and Toshiba are planning to create new microchips that will put the power of a supercomputer into consumer devices, while enabling all kinds of gadgets to connect to each other via high-speed Internet connections. The three will pour more than $400m (about £272m) into the project over the next five years, dedicating facilities in New York and Texas to research and development.

At the heart of the next-generation chips -- code-named "Cell" -- is the broadband Internet. Broadband, or high-speed, Internet connectivity will be built into the chips, making it possible for them to network with other Cell chips without consuming extra power, a feature that could enable many devices to act as part of one large system.

"Microprocessors that currently exist as individual islands will be more closely linked, making a network of systems act more as one, unified 'supersystem'... just as biological cells in the body unite to form complete physical systems," said Ken Kutaragi, president and chief executive of Sony Computer Entertainment, in a statement.

The companies claim Cell chips will put the power of a Deep Blue supercomputer into low-power, portable consumer devices. It is not clear whether the chips are targeted at wireless devices, but industry experts say such processing power could be useful for quickly decoding highly-compressed video transmitted to a handset.

Cell products will use some of the more advanced technologies on the drawing boards today, such as copper wires and silicon-on-insulator transistors. They will be manufactured to 0.10 micron specifications, smaller than today's most cutting-edge computer chips.

A joint development facility will be established within an existing IBM facility in Austin, Texas, which will be staffed with as many as 300 researchers, and IBM also said it expects a substantial portion of its Fishkill, New York-based manufacturing plant to be dedicated to Cell.

Other products likely to use Cell are Sony gaming consoles and other digital set-top boxes. Sony, which has announced other networked entertainment plans, is aiming to turn its current PlayStation2 console into a broadband Internet terminal, and Toshiba has already collaborated with SCE on PlayStation2 chips.

IBM's presence in the alliance is an example of how the worlds of consumer electronics and computing are rapidly converging in products such as digital television, according to experts. "It's to do with the digitisation of consumer products," said Paul O'Donovan, an analyst with research firm Gartner Dataquest. "That's going to be a huge market... We'll see more of these kinds of partnerships happening over the next few years."

In many ways, however, the announcement is merely symbolic. After all, $400m over five years is not all that much of an investment between three large companies, and computer chips will naturally become much faster in five years' time anyway, O'Donovan pointed out. "Five years ago we were pushing the 66MHz barrier in PCs," he said. "This won't be the only supercomputer-on-a-chip in five years' time. Intel, AMD, and others will all be in there as well."

The assumption that consumer broadband will be pervasive in five years could also be problematic. Broadband technologies such as ADSL and cable-modems have been sold to consumers in the US for the last three years or so, but sales have yet to reach mass-market levels. In the UK, where ADSL was rolled out last year, broadband has only reached one percent of the population.

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