Sony, Microsoft, and the Ultimate Gaming Chip

Editor's Rating:

The Good: The inside story of how the chip for Sony's Playstation3 video game system got created.

The Bad: To advance the narrative, the authors must traverse some complex technical territory.

The Bottom Line: At times absorbing—but non-techie readers may be overwhelmed.

The Race for a New Game Machine:Creating the Chips Insidethe Xbox 360 & the PlayStation 3By David Shippy and Mickie PhippsCitadel Press; 240 pp.; $21.95

In 2003 the electronic industry's chattering classes began buzzing about a forthcoming superchip, one so powerful that video games using it would have near-cinematic clarity and run far faster than any other piece of silicon made by Intel (INTC), Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), or anyone else. Its backers raved about what they termed a "supercomputer on a chip."

The rumors were true. Unveiled in 2005, the Cell processor—a joint project of Sony (SNE), Toshiba (TOSBF), and IBM (IBM) begun in 2000—held undisputed claim to the silicon equivalent of the land speed record for a few years. Nevertheless, neither the chip nor the PlayStation 3 video-game system for which it was designed has lived up to expectations.

The Race for a New Game Machine by David Shippy and Mickie Phipps provides the at times absorbing, inside story of the arduous process of creating the chip. Shippy was IBM's chief architect and technical lead on the PowerPC core, a key section of the chip. Phipps was a project manager who worked with Shippy at IBM's Austin (Tex.) research lab before leaving IBM to pursue a writing career.

Be warned: At times the authors wander into complex technical territory that's necessary to advance the narrative. Chips are manufactured in Space Age sterile environments, but the design process is as cumbersome as any large construction project. Inevitably there are heated clashes involving egos and corporate politics. The authors do their best to describe the tensions, simplifying the arcane through the deft use of easy-to-understand metaphors. One aspect of chip design is compared to "calling ahead to have a limo at the door waiting for you," while another technical point is illustrated by evoking the cartoon character Wile E. Coyote. Most of the time this approach serves the general reader well.

The subtitle, Creating the Chips Inside the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3, foreshadows a major turning point in the plot. In the first half, Shippy and his team focus almost entirely on meeting Sony's Christmas 2005 delivery date for the PS3. But in late 2002, IBM executives cut a deal with Sony's primary gaming rival, Microsoft (MSFT), to design a chip for the Xbox 360—with some of the same attributes as the one going into the PlayStation 3. This is something like arranging to supply a secret drink ingredient to Coke (KO) and Pepsi (PEP) at the same time, with only one of those rivals aware of both deals. But IBM was aggressively pursuing new business, and nothing in the Sony-Toshiba-IBM agreement prohibited this deal.

Already facing a tight schedule, Shippy and his team of IBM engineers must cope not only with additional work but with the burden of hiding the Microsoft deal from their Sony and Toshiba "partners." It doesn't take long for the Japanese to figure out what's going on. The main result: a nagging sense of guilt for Shippy, along with a maddening struggle to please two masters at once. All the while, he has to push exhausted and demoralized engineers who are pulling 80-hour weeks.

The authors see their experiences as providing management lessons. In a chapter called "Building a Team for Success," Shippy describes his hiring choices—favoring engineers who are skilled, with a sense of fun. Another chapter is "Be Proactive, Anticipate Problems." Yet here, Shippy doesn't follow his own advice: The chapter focuses on solving complex engineering bugs that no one foresees, while trying to appease grumpy senior executives.

By the end, the rules of what can be accomplished by a square of silicon no bigger than a quarter are permanently changed. But nothing goes as planned. While the Cell chip shattered many barriers, it worked little magic for Sony, previously king of video games. The PS3 was launched a year late, a fact for which Sony and IBM share the blame. Today, the Sony machine is only the third-most-popular gaming console, behind the Xbox 360 and the business leader, the Nintendo (NTDOY) Wii—both of which have very popular applications. The Nintendo device—which, oddly enough, has yet another IBM chip bearing Shippy's fingerprints—last year outsold the PS3 nearly 3 to 1 in the U.S.

In their epilogue, Shippy and Phipps offer a shout of victory that rings hollow. The authors all but ignore the fact that PS3 hasn't been much of a success, leaving the reader to wonder how Sony went wrong.

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