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May 23rd, 2000

[12:30 PM] IBM's New Chip Technology: The Impact On Apple & The Tech Industry
by Wes George

IBM announced yesterday that it plans to use an advanced semiconductor manufacturing process to build the next generation PowerPC processors for Apple. This process is capable of boosting performance up to 30%. Meanwhile, the company is ready to enter production on a microprocessor using this advance for its own servers immediately.

The technology called silicon-on-insulator (SOI) uses glass as a substrate on which to build the chip instead of silicon dioxide. This prevents fewer electrons from bleeding away, increasing efficiency and lowering power consumption.

Bijan Davari, IBM's vice president of semiconductor research and development explained to C-Net News, "The electrons that are supposed to go through a switch, some get wasted into silicon, (SOI) prevents the electrons from being lost in the silicon."

Microprocessors built with the new technology will be up to 30% faster and use less power, making them perfect for portable devices. However, the SOI process is extremely demanding and involves a number of new advances including circuit redesigns and a process for making the glass substrate as defect-free as today's ubiquitous silicon dioxide.

Experts claim that IBM is up to two years ahead of the competition in implementing the new SOI technology, which will help close the MHz gap in the PowerPC versus Pentium speed wars. See yesterday's Apple Trader column for an analysis of the G4 speed gap.

IBM is also ready to launch it own AS/400e800 line of servers using the SOI technology in August to compete with Sun's high end servers. Yesterday, Compaq also announced a deal to have its Alpha processors built by IBM using IBM's copper and SOI technologies. Compaq said only that production would begin sometime in the future and would not supersede a contract the company has with Samsung Electronics, the current manufacturer of Alpha chips for Compaq's computers.

Other companies interested in using IBM's SOI technology include Motorola, Hewlett Packard and Texas Instruments.

The End of Moore's Law? Not!

Researchers at IBM have been making great strides in new semiconductor manufacturing techniques in the last year. The most important of these technologies is the invention of a low-k dielectric technique which promises to eventually replace silicon dioxide as circuit size shrinks to levels and densities where silicon's physical properties, the basis of the digital age, become useless.

As microcircuits shrink in step with Moore's law, a point is reached where silicon can no longer channel the accumulation of a sufficient electric charge. Silicon has too low of a property called the dielectric constant (k) to scale circuits much below today's manufacturing threshold threatening to stall out Moore's law. Ironically, silicon also has too high of a value for k to isolate the flow of electrons between devices at scales that would push semiconductor speeds ahead.

The search for an oxide which meets the dielectric challenge is the key to the continuation of progress in the semiconductor manufacturing industry. As MIT's Technology Review says, "The current economic boom is likely due to increases in computing speed and decreases in price."

Fortunately for Apple, it's IBM, not Intel, that seems to have substantial lead.

The Mac Observer Spin: The news of future SOI PowerPC processors is coming just in time to boost Apple's platform to power parity with Intel/AMD CISC based PCs. As Intel and AMD ratchet the speed of their processors towards the gigahertz range, the G4 has steadily lost ground in the MHz bragging rights war.

Even though Advanced Micro Devices has licensed Motorola's own copper technology for Athlon chip production to set new speed records, Motorola has consistently been unable to meet G4 upgrade deadlines while the AIM alliance has decayed. Thanks to IBM, Moore's Law now practically considered a force of nature, will continue to raise all boats for the foreseeable future.


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