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IBM Opens, Customizes Power Chips

By Jay Lyman
Apr 1, 2004 10:30 AM PT

By making final chip designs more flexible and opening its Power processor architecture to more partners and developers, IBM is pushing its microprocessor technology to the widening category of electronic devices that require chip customization.

IBM Opens, Customizes Power Chips

Calling it an "unprecedented step," IBM outlined its plans to collaborate openly on the Power microprocessor architecture and heralded "a new, open hardware era" as it announced the plans at its Power Everywhere event in New York this week. Big Blue said it is answering the call for a new chip design model and will now provide a broadly available, low-cost standard processor to customers.

"Every Power chip we produce is customized -- it's always been done through IBM," company spokesperson Jim Larkin told TechNewsWorld. "We want to see the customers themselves do the customization on the microprocessor architecture, and that's never happened before."

Silicon Spurs

"We believe there is potential and opportunity to spur innovation in microprocessors that didn't exist before," IBM's Larkin said. "We're already seeing some signs that business customers around the globe want the ability to do different things with microprocessor architecture."

Larkin referred to the case of China's Culturecom, a technology company that customized the Power microprocessor architecture to adapt to Chinese language characters, calling it "a pure example of innovation."

"We want to spur that and we want to see more of it," he said, adding that a timeline is difficult to nail down because the chip-making move is essentially unprecedented.

Force-Feeding Chips

Aberdeen Group chief research analyst Peter Kastner told TechNewsWorld that IBM is trying to encourage more embedded microprocessor applications with its play, which likely will be welcomed by device designers.

"No one today considers designing a new product by designing the processor to run it, so IBM wants to sell more Power processor cores while not shoving a full-blown microprocessor design down designers' throats," Kastner said.

The analyst, who said IBM is fighting chip giant Intel's two powerhouse processor architectures, x86 and x-Scale, indicated Big Blue is seeking to provide silicon for the next generation of mostly-consumer devices, such as cell phones, set-top boxes and cameras.

"This is more than just a business offer," Kastner added. "There's technology that could make this work now. It means that the time to market could be fairly short. Customization could be done economically and with low technology risk."

Breadth Versus Depth

Gartner research vice president Martin Reynolds said IBM is building on processor customization work that already exists to a certain degree. After all, gaming consoles, digital video recorders and other devices in the market rely heavily on customization.

Still, Reynolds told TechNewsWorld that by building chip features that are not yet enabled, IBM still can cost-effectively create the chips, and customers, such as original equipment manufacturers, still can customize them.

"The reason for this is it's going to be incredibly expensive to redesign chips," Reynolds said.

The analyst said Intel, which ships 150 million processors a year that are largely the same, is at the other end of the spectrum with its reach in core electronic markets.

"Because they have such a big market, they don't really need these solutions to get into those product categories," Reynolds said. IBM, on the other hand, is looking to make its Power architecture the core of many diverse products, he added.

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