Intel rivals gang up to make mobile chips

IBM allies with partners to design more power-efficient chips for devices like smartphones and MIDs

A host of chip makers, including IBM, on Thursday announced a partnership to develop low-power chips for mobile devices, which could challenge Intel's burgeoning presence in the space.

IBM is allying with companies including Samsung and GlobalFoundries, which makes chips for Advanced Micro Devices, to develop smaller chips for devices like smartphones and mobile Internet devices. IBM wants to enable customers to design more power-efficient chips as the Internet and other applications become prevalent on mobile devices.

Shrinking chips to smaller sizes generally reduces power consumption while boosting performance. The companies are partnering for the development of chips using an advanced manufacturing process, which shrinks existing chips by half the size, said Jeff Couture, an IBM spokesman.

The chips will be manufactured using the 28-nanometer process, an improvement from the 45-nanometer process widely used to make chips. The 28-nm process will enable chips to deliver a 40 percent performance improvement and 20 per cent reduction in power consumption.

Sample chips will become available in the second half of 2010, but Couture couldn't provide a date when mass production would start. IBM is expected to move to the 32-nm process later this year, and could move to the 28-nm process sometime next year. Other partners in the alliance include Chartered Semiconductor Manufacturing, Infineon Technologies and STMicroelectronics.

IBM and its partners could get an early manufacturing edge over Intel, which is expected to move to 32-nanometer later this year to make its "Moorestown" mobile chips. Intel could catch up when it moves to the 22-nm process in 2011.

Over the past couple of cycles, foundries have upgraded the manufacturing process in smaller increments for quicker chip upgrades, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64. With the announcement, IBM is saying it wants to get into the "half-node" business to bring intermediary chip upgrades to customers, Brookwood said.

"The half-node approach brings new benefits every year instead of every two years. It's like Moore's Law applied in smaller increments," he said. Moore's Law states that the number of transistors that can be placed on silicon, and its computational capability, doubles every 18 months.

That differs from Intel's approach, which tries to drive architectural upgrades by shrinking chips every two years, Brookwood said. The architectural upgrades help the company drive the market ahead.

Arm is a notable customer that could reap the benefits of IBM's new approach. Arm is designing 28-nanometer chips for mobile applications and licenses its design to chip makers, which have put the chips in hundreds of thousands of mobile devices, including Apple's iPhone.

Arm is working on many Cortex chip designs, which could result in some power and performance benefits from the manufacturing upgrade, Brookwood said. IBM is trying to make it easier for customers like Arm to migrate 32-nanometer designs to the 28-nanometer process.

Arm in February announced its first 32-nm processor, which it said should improve battery life and functionality in future smartphones. Devices based on the chip could appear in late 2010.

At the time, an Arm executive said the company wanted to show that it had access to similar technology that Intel had to manufacture its microprocessors.

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