US Report: IBM could put phones in almost anything

A phone in your PalmPilot?
Written by ZDNet Staff, Contributor

That could be one benefit from the latest high-tech announcement from IBM. Monday, the company unveiled improvements in the manufacturing of integrated chips using a material known as silicon germanium, or SiGe. The technology promises not only to put communications capabilities into handheld organisers such as the PalmPilot, but into almost any type of digital device as small as a decorative pin.

"Today, we only have rudimentary chips," said Bill O'Leary, manager of media relations for IBM. "Within a couple of years, you will see a cell phone integrated into a single chip." Silicon germanium is a semiconductor that is more efficient than the CMOS technology used in producing today's computer chips. That means the SiGe chips can run faster and use less power than those used in most mobile applications today.

IBM estimates that communications chips made from the semiconductor will use one-third to one-fourth the power of other high-speed chips, while only taking one-fifth to one-tenth the space.

While not new, SiGe has rarely been used in products. The material is difficult to work with, said IBM's O'Leary. "But we wanted to prove that SiGe is ready for prime time," he said. Digital PCS phones and global position systems top the list of current applications. However, since silicon germanium chips have only been manufactured in small quantities, they were expensive. IBM claims that problem is behind them. "The costs are down, the repeatability of the process is up," said IBM's O'Leary.

That's key to turning the material from an esoteric semiconductor into a pot of gold, said Richard Doherty, director of market research with digital appliance watcher Envisioneering Group. "IBM now produces thousands of parts instead of a dozen [per wafer],"he said. "It will lower the cost of phones to levels that we could not imagine previously."

Doherty imagines that a brooch-sized cell phone will be a possibility within a few years. But that's not all. IBM is one of the key players in the Bluetooth initiative, which promises to put wireless communications chips in all sorts of devices.

With Intel, Ericsson, Toshiba, and Nokia, IBM is pushing small wireless chips as the way to connect the host of information appliances that people will own in the future. SiGe could make a solid foundation for the initiative, although IBM would not comment on that possibility.

Still, the moving to SiGe seems to be a solid first step, says Doherty. "Today it's handheld communicators and devices, tomorrow communication chips will be everywhere."

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