IBM, Sony Extend Cell Chip Development

The joint venture will develop future versions of the as-yet-unseen processor.
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The Cell processor has yet to make its long-awaited real-world debut, but the trio of companies that developed it are extending their alliance to develop new versions of the chip.

IBM

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,

Sony

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and

Toshiba

announced Thursday that they have renewed their semiconductor development collaboration for another five years, through 2010.

Under the agreement, the three companies will collaborate on future versions of the Cell microprocessor to be based on 32-nanometer processing technology. The current Cell relies on 90-nanometer technology and the existing road map for the processor goes only as far as 65 nanometers.

The collaboration also will explore the use of new types of semiconductor materials and other underlying technologies, which could lead to new chips and products beyond the Cell.

"We're looking for the next big processor breakthrough," said Lisa Su, vice president of IBM's Semiconductor Research and Development Center. The latest phase of the alliance will put a great deal of emphasis on early-stage research, whereas the previous effort focused more on development, said Su.

With the costs of developing and manufacturing cutting-edge chips becoming increasingly expensive, the companies' decision to continue pooling their resources is not altogether surprising. A number of high-tech firms have entered similar types of arrangements, including

Intel

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and

Micron

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which in November

announced a joint venture to develop flash memory chips dubbed IM Flash.

Yet the renewed commitment to the Cell comes before the chip has actually had a chance to prove its mettle in the real world. Sony's PlayStation 3 console, which will be the Cell's first -- and so far only -- major showcase, is not expected to be available until sometime this spring.

"So far, what IBM, Sony and Toshiba have produced is an interesting chip with a lot of promise, but at this point not much utility," says Insight64 analyst Nathan Brookwood.

The Cell has generated a lot of industry buzz due to its innovative architecture, which features a 64-bit PowerPC chip as its main engine, along with up to eight specialized co-processors. The parallel processing capabilities inherent in this design should allow the Cell to excel at graphic-intensive applications like video games.

According to Brookwood, this unusual architecture also means that software programmers need to reconfigure their applications to take full advantage of the Cell's parallel processing capabilities. "Not all applications lend themselves to that," said Brookwood.

In addition to video games, IBM has indicated that the Cell is well-suited to higher-end, number-crunching tasks like weather forecasting. In June,

Mercury Computer Systems

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announced it will offer a Cell-based blade product for use in aerospace and medical imaging applications.

But in announcing the latest phase of their collaboration, the Cell's creators seemed to signal that the chip's focus going forward will be aimed at mass-market, consumer entertainment applications.

According to the Semiconductor Industry Association, consumers are now responsible for more than half of all chip purchases. Companies like

Texas Instruments

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and

National Semiconductor

(NSM)

, which make chips used in cell phones and other electronic gadgets, have enjoyed brisk sales of late.

IBM's Su said the Cell's consumer focus will not be exclusive.

"We're focusing on high-volume consumer

applications because we think that's a growth area," said IBM's Su. "But the technology is very broad, so I would expect to see it applicable in many different spaces."