IBM is taking the highly anticipated Cell chip technology at the heart of the future Sony Play-Station and offering to help customers design it into a far wider range of electronics, from aerospace to military to medical products.
"Cell" is a next-generation microprocessor aimed at the home entertainment market that is being jointly developed by International Business Machines, Sony Corporation and Toshiba.
Analysts expect the closely guarded chip development to be used in Sony's forthcoming PlayStation 3 gaming console and in a line of advanced television sets from Toshiba, but until now it had not been targeted at other markets.
"It was never a given that IBM would necessarily open it up to a broader market," said Fred Zeiber, a chip analyst with research group Pathfinder, who sees IBM attracting customers in science and military research and consumer electronics makers.
While working jointly to develop Cell, IBM, Sony and Toshiba are allowed to separately market the resulting chip to their respective customers, IBM spokesman Cary Zieter said.
IBM, which has a major facility in Warwick, said its Engineering & Technology Services (E&TS) unit, which acts as product design specialists on behalf of industrial customers including Boeing and Honeywell International, plans to help customers embed the Cell chip in electronics that require vivid graphic or video processing, among other functions.
IBM E&TS counts 1,300 engineers around the world. The company did not disclose how many would be dedicated to Cell-based design work.
While details remain sketchy, Cell is seen by analysts as promising in coming years to offer formidable competition in consumer electronic mass markets that Intel Corporation, the world's top computer chipmaker, also covets.
Early test data shows Cell able to churn data at speeds above 4 gigahertz, or billions of cycles a second, ahead of the fastest Intel chips.
IBM and Intel, joined at the hip during the PC era, are now looking increasingly like strategic rivals. IBM is in the process of selling its Intel-based PC business to Lenovo of China. It has dropped support for Intel's Itanium processor aimed at powerful business computers and increasingly relies on its own line of Power-based chips, of which Cell is a part.
"It's a little early to tell how Cell will fare. The proof will be in what applications it attracts," said Zeiber, a semiconductor market analyst since 1971 in Silicon Valley.
"There is a boneyard out there of new processors that have never made it," he said.
"But Cell comes with a huge built-in advantage - its ties to Sony."