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article imageFast And Thrifty, IBM Says It Has Computer Chips Of The Future

By Alexander Missal     Nov 5, 2001 in Technology
BOEBLINGEN, GERMANY (dpa) - Chips are the heart of every computer and for that reason companies that lead the way in chip development place themselves at the heart of the information revolution. IBM, with its latest chip developments, is out in front.
In the past few years, researchers have succeeded repeatedly at making electronic components faster and more compact. In doing so, they have driven the worldwide growth of the technology sector.
Yet now, almost as if on cue to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the computer chip, the victory lap of the PC appears to be ending. Demand for PCs has stagnated, and new challenges stand before the semi-conductor industry.
According to some analysts, the computers of the future are not the beige boxes that we have on our desktops today but rather chip- enabled products such as the Sony Playstation, digital television, or cell phones with Internet connections.
It is for these devices that the workers at IBM development centres in Boeblingen, Germany, are building new chips that must not only be quick but also multifunctional and, most importantly, energy efficient.
That's because for every improvement in chip speed, the energy requirements for a chip increase dramatically. The CMOS technology that IBM developed in the 1980s was important in being able to reduce energy requirements of chips at that time by 1,000 per cent. But energy requirements and associated heat problems are once again stumbling points for the chip manufacturers.
"Pentium processors are drawn on a surface that is hotter than an oven burner," reports Helmut Schettler, one of the two worldwide development managers at IBM. His observation is in line with a study at rival chipmaker Intel. Researchers are scrambling for a solution, but a revolutionary breakthrough like that offered by CMOS is not yet in sight, in Schettler's estimation.
IBM and Japanese firms Sony and Toshiba went in together recently on a highly promising project. More than 400 million dollars have been invested by the three firms in the development of a "supercomputer on a chip." This development is intended to place processors and memory on a single chip. The smallest components are 1,000 times thinner than a human hair.
The first implementation of this super chip will be in the next generation of Sony's Playstation. The idea of putting an entire computer on a chip would also work with cell phones. Three components would then be combined into one. "This saves space, energy, and cost," says Schettler.
IBM is known for its innovations in chip technology, although the American giant has in the past left the PC mass market to Intel and other rivals focusing only on supplying chips for its own super computers.
Former IBM chief Louis V. Gerstner began selling these central elements to other firms several years ago. In the so-called ASIC (application specific) chips, IBM's 12 per cent market share makes it the market leader. The decision to develop strengthened chips for the mobile end products of the future counts as one of the most important strategic changes of directions from Gerstner's time in office.
In IBM's Boeblinger laboratory, around 650 people are working on the smallest components of the computer cosmos - chip design is to some extent a matter of craftsmanship.
The current PC crisis is not a major issue. The compression of data for digital TV means major demand for these electronic brains of the future, but the Internet also demands better and better chips too, says Schettler.
"To speed the Internet up by ten times and to make it accessible to everyone, we need powerful computing capability," declares Schettler.
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