Ibm: Big Blue's Copper Coup

IBM has a booming $3.5 billion business selling computer chips to other companies. Sure, it's no Intel. But it does have a few techno-tricks up its silicon sleeve.

On Sept. 22, the computer giant sent shock waves through the semiconductor industry when it announced it had developed a less costly way to make more powerful microchips. The secret: copper, a better conductor than the aluminum currently in use.

Chipmakers have shunned copper because it "corrupts" the silicon in chips. But IBM says that after 10 years of work, it has developed a patented process for affixing copper to the silicon without corrupting it. The result: chips that are up to 40% more powerful and up to 20% cheaper. Test chips are already in production, and IBM says it will have the chips in its computers by the end of '98.

Don't expect IBM to help other chipmakers catch up. IBM says it won't license the technology. But Big Blue will gladly build chips for other companies. So far, about six high-tech companies are interested in putting some IBM inside their machines.