By John Cohn Ph.D., IBM Fellow, IBM Systems and Technology Group
I admit it, I’m a technology geek. I’ve been in the silicon chip business for nearly 30 years but I still get surprised at how pervasive and critical they are to how we live, work and play.
The semiconductor transistor was invented 64 years ago, and in the progression from its first use in portable radios to today’s smart phones we’ve reached the point now that there are about one billion transistors for every person on the planet. That’s a lot of chip processing power at our fingertips.
When you think about a Smarter Planet, you may not have chips in mind, but the fact is that semiconductors are critical to a world that is intelligent, interconnected and instrumented. And you may be surprised to discover that IBM provides the chips and chip technology making that happen – particularly in the products and applications we use every day.
You may already know that IBM’s Microelectronics Division (MD) – the organization I’m with – has been making IBM systems more intelligent for more than four decades. MD’s semiconductor technology is used to build the silicon ‘brains’ behind all of IBM’s high-end servers. In fact, we’re very proud that IBM’s wonderful Watson computer used 100’s of Microelectronics’ advanced 45-nanometer Silicon-on-Insulator (SOI) chips to help it outwit its competition in the Jeopardy! challenge.
What you may not know is that IBM Microelectronics also is a leader in providing silicon solutions for the interconnected parts of a Smarter Planet. Smarter Planet is all about interconnecting data through wired and wireless telecommunications infrastructure. We couldn’t be happier that the world’s growing love affair with smart phones and tablets is driving huge growth of this infrastructure. We’ve built a very successful business called IBM Custom Logic solutions that uses the same advanced technologies we deploy in IBM servers to build chips for most of the industry-leading suppliers of wired communications equipment. In fact, we are the number one supplier of silicon to this industry – and have been for the last six years. In addition to fueling the wired Internet, IBM Custom Logic chips are now playing an increasingly important role in the rapidly growing wireless infrastructure. By a recent estimate, IBM chip technology is in about 40 percent of cell towers worldwide. What’s even more impressive is that a full 50 percent of the world’s mobile data traffic travels over IBM silicon at some point in its flow.
It’s not just the infrastructure that’s growing. ‘Mobile mania’ is driving huge growth in the number of wireless devices Believe it or not, there are now more than 5 billion cell phones in the world, What I’ll bet you don’t know is that IBM microelectronics technology plays a key role in the creation of these mobile gadgets. Our customers use our Specialty Foundry technologies to fabricate chips for some of the most performance critical cell phone radio components. How many chips? Well, we just shipped our 200 millionth cell phone transceiver, which handles the send and receive functions to make sure all your calls connect reliably; our 500 millionth mobile WiFi power amp, which allows you to mobile surf at home or in the office; and our three billionth power management chip, which gets maximum battery life out of your handset, laptop, GPS or wireless LAN device.
In addition to building chips in our own factories, IBM Microelectronics licenses its technologies to some of the biggest names in the mobile space. These companies use our technologies to build many of the other components in popular phones and tablets. So whatever kind of phone you are packing, there’s a good chance that there is some IBM technology inside.
Now you may be asking yourself, “If IBM is such a big player, why haven’t I heard about it before?” The answer is that IBM builds these components in what the industry calls a foundry model. That is, we use our technology to fabricate custom-designed chips for other companies. Generally these business arrangements require us to protect our clients’ names. So, think of us like a corporate superhero. Mild mannered by day, but with a secret identity that allows us to help those in need of our technology powers.
So what’s next? Microelectronics is now turning its attention to the opportunities in the instrumented layer of Smarter Planet. Some industry experts predict that in the future there may be as many as 50 billion connected devices instrumenting our world. We want to put our technology to work there too. We are targeting our new ‘smarter silicon’ solutions to build chips that will help automate buildings, factories and lighting, and even help us better manage solar energy. In addition to building our silicon business, our hope is to connect these chips and our customers to the broader Smarter Planet opportunities in IBM. Stay tuned to this blog for more on this smarter silicon space.
I hope this has given you a new perspective on the role of chips in a Smarter Planet. I can tell you this – with over a billion transistors at work in the world for each of us, there’s never been a better time to be a technology geek!