IBM last week announced new chip-making technology which it said will significantly increase the battery life of hand-held devices and boost the processor speed of servers and mainframes by up to 35 per cent.
The new chips will help neutralise a chief shortcoming of mobile phones, portable computers and other battery-operated devices - short battery life - and also will help drive development of a broad range of new portable devices that use voice-recognition technology, according to IBM.
The technology behind the power-and-speed boost is called silicon-on-insulator (SOI), which is a way to insulate the millions of transistors on a chip and thus contain the routine electrical charges which sap energy and interfere with performance, according to Chris King, director of worldwide marketing at IBM Microelectronics.
Traditional chips typically have transistors which are insulated from one another but not from the base upon which they sit, according to King. IBM has added insulation between the transistors and the base, using silicon dioxide - glass - as the insulator, she said.
SOI technology has been known for around 15 years and principally used for high-end aerospace applications, but until now nobody could surmount the technical and manufacturing hurdles barring the way to mass-manufacturing SOI-based chips, she said.
IBM's achievement has been to bring the cost of the silicon insulating material way down, opening the door to mass production, King said. In addition, the company was able to generate highly accurate transistor device models, a tricky but essential step of technically spelling out for manufacturers how the transistors behave, she said.
"We've been able to overcome those barriers and make it really ready for prime-time manufacturing," King said. "It's a major step in semiconductor process technology."
Depending on the application, the chips can be tweaked to emphasise their low-power usage or their fast performance, according to King. For example, SOI-based chips used in networking infrastructure will probably be primed to take advantage of their speed, while those chips destined for use in cell phones will be optimised to use little power, she said.
IBM will incorporate SOI technology into some of its standard products, including the PowerPC microprocessor and chips used in its S/390, AS/400 and RS/6000 servers, according to King. SOI-based chips are already being produced at IBM's, New York pilot production line, and the company will start making the chips at its high-volume Vermont production line in the first half of 1999, she said.