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Cell: A Chip That's Going Public

By Arik Hesseldahl The chip best known for powering the forthcoming PlayStation 3 gaming system will likely be showing up more frequently in other devices. To encourage broader use, IBM (IBM), Sony (SNE), and Toshiba (TOSBF), the companies behind the Cell processor, will release a huge batch of documents today that give technical details on how the chip works.

With the release of 750 pages of documents today and another 250 between now and October, the three companies say they hope to stimulate interest among software developers in creating applications that will run on the Cell chip.

UNDER WRAPS TILL NOW. According to Ted Maeurer, software manager in the STI Design Center -- a unit of the three-way joint venture that IBM, Toshiba, and Sony created around the chip -- there has always been curiosity about how the chip works. "The level of interest has frankly been difficult to respond to," he says.

Charles King, an analyst with Pund-IT, a Hayward (Calif.) consultancy, says Sony, IBM, and Toshiba are meeting commitments made to software developers and interested hardware manufacturers earlier in the year -- and are doing it on time. "Great computer hardware is only a doorstop without great software," he says.

The three companies have always intended for the Cell chip to be used in hardware other than the PlayStation 3, but until today they've kept technical details about how it works close to the vest.

VIDEO-PROCESSING POTENTIAL. Still, some businesses have seen that the chip wasn't just fun and games. In June, Mercury Computer Systems (MRCY), a Chelmsford (Mass.)-based manufacturer of specialized computers used for medical imaging and military surveillance, says it plans to use the chip in an as-yet-unspecified application it is developing with IBM. The release of the information should encourage other companies to do likewise, King says.

Indeed, the Cell has plenty of potential uses. Already, Sony and Toshiba are making an example of the chip's nongame potential. Sony plans to use it in a line of media servers, set to debut in 2007, that will be capable of transmitting several streams of digital video at once. Toshiba has said it expects to use it in a line of high-definition TV sets. "The sheer processing power of the Cell processor provides some very interesting capabilities for video processing," King says.

Chris Crotty, an analyst with iSuppli, a San Jose (Calif.) market research firm, expects the chip could also be "a good fit" as set-top boxes evolve. Says STI's Maeurer: "This is really about exploring how far we can go with the Cell processor." Far beyond video games, it seems.

Hesseldahl is reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York

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