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Is IBM PC sell off preparation for a Power chip attack?

A chip on the shoulder?

Opinion Faultline would like to put forward another explanation of why IBM's PC business is suddenly up for sale, one that we haven't yet seen proffered in the various publications that have covered the news in the last few days.

IBM is effectively clearing out its unprofitable PC business, so that it can go into the PC chip business with its Power 5 chips. It can hardly sign up Hewlett-Packard and Dell as Power 5 customers while it competes head on with one of their primary businesses, and by selling off its PC division it takes away much of the friction with these two organizations.

There is no rule that says that the next generation of Linux desktops need to be powered by an Intel chip, and given the performance of the Power architecture, accelerating gently ahead of Intel's single core chip capability, it is a natural contender for the de facto chip to power Linux, not just on servers, where it plays right now, nor just on Supercomputers, but down also on Workstations, PCs, and under the power of CE Linux, on consumer electronics devices, cheap internet access devices and even mobile phones.

In fact Intel is the last chip base that a fresh market, like China, would want to embrace, given that any devices made using Intel chips can also be used to run copies of Windows, legal or otherwise, and China wants to steer a wide course around Windows, and instead develop its own architectures.

It is then perhaps no coincidence that IBM announced the creation this week of Power.Org from an event in China, and that it is a Chinese company Lenovo that is leading the charge to buy IBM's PC operations for some $2bn or so. Perhaps the quid pro quo is that IBM's Power chipset becomes the future Chinese server standard.

The story behind PowerPC has always been one of keeping sales of the chip healthy with a captive customer base, so that IBM could stay comfortably in the chip business (unlike, for instance, Sun).

By convincing Apple to use its chips all those years ago and by getting Motorola to second source and by using the same chip architecture in its servers, IBM has stayed in the race, but by using multiple cores on the same chip first, and promoting parallelism and inter core rapid communication, IBM has gone one better and is getting ready to steal Intel's crown. Also by adding Sony and Toshiba to its fan base with the Cell chip, as well as Nintendo and Microsoft on their games platforms, it has further guaranteed future sales for its Power based chips.

The shift threatens to completely re-write ownership of the control of the technology industry. In the process, in one fell swoop IBM may have grabbed all digital media device makers and given them a viable architecture for the future to compete with one dominated by Microsoft.

Since its early attempts a uniting a force behind its chipset, IBM has been waiting for a discontinuity in the progress of Intel and thinks it has finally found it in the switch to 64-bit computing, a shift that has so far eluded Intel.

First AMD offered its Opteron that was a hybrid, offering both 32-bit and 64-bit operations, as opposed to Intel's 64-bit only choice on Itanium. Secondly Intel was late into the game for multi-processor cores, something that it only committed to this year and will deliver next.

IBM said openly at its Power.Org launch that an architecture that needs to run on everything from a low priced, low battery draining mobile device right up through workstations, servers and its hugely powerful BlueGene supercomputing, it would always have to both come in on-chip clusters and it would also need to be possible for multiple chips to co-operate.

"The ARM chip and the Intel chips were fine for what they did and they were ok for the mobile and PC world, but for a world which requires lots of floating point calculations and handling of video from its chips, you are going to need a multiprocessor with a 64-bit architecture,"

"The traditional ways of making chips are reaching natural barriers and now integration is the problem to solve," said Nigel Beck of IBM at the launch.

Now through Power.Org IBM is making its play to open up the Power Architecture and take it into new verticals. Its announcement came with just 15 new members, none of them hugely influential on a global scale, and with Motorola and Apple, IBM's prior partners on the Power architecture, missing from the mix.

But the outing had a distinctly Chinese flavor, with Chinese chip maker Shanghai Belling promising to license the core, Culturecom building a tax organizer on Linux Power for China, Peking University offering remote access to test your Linux on Power applications, and IBM promising to add another 150 engineers to its Power Architecture Technology Center in Shanghai.

IBM also revealed that it has "cracked" wet immersion lithography, a faster process for making chips and also added new low-power "synthesizable" cores to its Power offerings.

Other members all announcing commitment to the Power Architecture included AMCC, Bull, Cadence Design Systems, Chartered Semiconductor, Jabil Circuit, Novell, Red Hat, Sony, Synopsys, Thales, Tundra Semiconductor and Wistron.

When asked why Motorola and Apple were not among the new disciples of Beck said, "Freescale (the part of Motorola that makes chips) Apple, Cisco and Xilinx are not announcing their support today for various reasons.

"Some of our partners just want to sit and wait until the rules and regulations of membership are worked out, others just may choose not the join.

"But they are all aware of the organization and we would expect statements from some of them in the near future."

Power.Org will take on the standards around the Power processors range, operating very much in the same vein as the Java Community Process. IBM wants to keep control of the core instruction set, but then again it hopes to put some silicon items outside this such as accelerators, so that the chips can become highly customizable without losing their shape.

"For instance one of our licensees has added Chinese language processing at the chip level," said Beck.

The diagram above is how IBM sees Power.Org being influenced and who it will work for as it tries to put in an ecosystem as fast as it can, while it still has Intel at a power disadvantage.

The first two standards that members will be asked to define are bus architecture and a reference specification for high volume servers.

The bus architecture will enable different components on the same "system on a chip" to work together. Standardizing the bus architecture eases the integration of technology from multiple vendors.

After this, and once the first meeting of Power.Org happens, the organization will set its own agenda, with IBM only able to rule on the central choice of the chip instruction set.

IBM may adopt a standards group, such as the IEEE to overseer the standards process later, but wants to ensure that the "rules and regulations" of the group are first established so that the standards process cannot be hijacked.

IBM in March this year already set up its PowerEverywhere initiative that led to a developer portal for Power and the recruitment of 1,500 developer members that were working on the Power architecture. It now intends to open this up and advertise if further afield.

Copyright © 2004, Faultline

Faultline is published by Rethink Research, a London-based publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter is an assessment of the impact of the week's events in the world of digital media. Faultline is where media meets technology. Subscription details here.

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