IBM made a raft of product and partnership announcements on Wednesday to help to push its Power microprocessor beyond servers to an array of corporate and consumer devices.
The industry is near the limits of the gains it can wring out of hardware advances, IBM executives said, adding that future chip improvements will need to come from better integration of chips with the systems they run.
"Integration eclipses gigahertz, going forward," said Bernie Meyerson, head of IBM's semiconductor development. "You cannot make things smaller forever. What happens when the individual layers in your transistor get down to the dimensions of what they are made out of, which is, roughly, atoms?"
IBM plans to address the challenge with two approaches that have been a foundation of its corporate strategy since Sam Palmisano took control as chief executive.
First, it will abide by its "on-demand" mantra and focus on a flexible, holistic approach to chip design, treating software and other system components as key to technical advances, said vice-president of technology and strategy, Irving Wladawsky-Berger.
Second, it will work closely with outside partners. To that end it announced new licensing and manufacturing options, and plans to build a community of development partners around its Power architecture.
Sony has licensed the Power technology for use in future consumer electronics, and will work with IBM to customise the chips it will use.
"It is not about an architecture, it is about the combination" of chips with other hardware and software products, said Red Hat's executive vice-president of sales, Alex Pinchev.
IBM's Power chips, in combination with Red Hat's Linux operating system, have driven improvements in system virtualisation and manageability, he said.
Representatives of Hong Kong-based Culturecom Holdings spoke of their forthcoming native-Chinese processing technology, under development with IBM since 2001.
"The ability to process in Chinese directly, without any translation software, will bring the cost of computing down tremendously," said executive director Henry Chang Manayan.
IBM also previewed its Power5 processor, due out in the second half of the year, and announced that it will begin shipping blade servers based on the Power architecture in April.
"IBM is creating a computing ecosystem that can be pushed up or down. I cannot really think of anyone else who is doing that," said Charles King, research director of infrastructure hardware for Sageza Group. "Intel has taken a very different approach, of creating specific processors for specific markets."
King said he expects IBM's strategy to be a successful one, and sees the Power architecture as an emerging industry standard. He also noted that IBM's plans to open its development process give the company access to a broader talent pool than is available to more proprietary designers.
"You get smart people to help you, and you see where that leads," King said.
Stacey Cowley writes for IDG