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IBM, Chartered, Samsung Chip Collaboration Snares Qualcomm

Qualcomm will use a processor developed jointly by the three companies in its high-volume cell phone chipsets.

A semiconductor design and manufacturing partnership between Chartered Semiconductor Manufacturing, IBM, and Samsung Electronics is gaining momentum. The group on Thursday announced that Qualcomm will use its Common Platform technology within its high-volume cell phone chipsets.

The chip for Qualcomm is the second to be designed and manufactured under the Common Platform initiative. The first was the processor used by Microsoft in its latest-generation gaming platform, the Xbox 360. An undisclosed number of additional chips are currently under development.

The Common Platform partners are sharing the costs of developing the latest chip-making technologies, and then transferring those manufacturing capabilities to fabricating plants operated independently by each company. With a common design and manufacturing process, the partners can offer chips to customers that are made by multiple sources.

"We have been able to synch our manufacturing capabilities together to develop an ecosystem of intellectual property and electronic design automation partners to enable the industry in an open fashion to design chips that can be sourced to any one of our manufacturing facilities without redesign," says Kevin Meyer, VP of worldwide marketing and platform alliances at Chartered, one of the world's largest semiconductor foundries.

The three Common Platform partners,which are currently in volume production of chips using a 90-nanometer manufacturing process, have begun prototype production at 65 nanometers and are working on development of a 45-nanometer production process. Each time a semiconductor manufacturer is able to shrink the production process, it lets them make chips that can have many more transistors in a given area of silicon.

Development of next-generation manufacturing processes is increasing in complexity and cost as the transistor line widths of the processes shrink. Meyer estimates it will cost around $1 billion to fully develop the 45-nanometer technology.

The Common Platform initiative allows the manufacturing partners to share that increasing development cost, but more importantly it provides customers with lower costs and the potential for multiple manufacturing sources, says Ana Hunter, VP of technology for the system LSI group at Samsung.

Multiple sources of chip production is of particular importance to a company like Qualcomm that may need hundreds of millions of the devices each year. According to IC Insights, nearly one billion cell phones will be sold in 2006.

All three Common Platform partners are expected to supply chips to Qualcomm, but each will compete independently on pricing. "That's the attractive feature to customers," Hunter says. "We cooperate on technology development and implement the same technology in our respective labs, but we compete for business. Customers have a choice for production and could multisource one design at three independent companies and in geographically diverse locations."

Typically, customers requiring a second source must commit considerable time and money to have the chip redesigned for the second manufacturer, she says. "This is really unprecedented flexibility and choice relative to the increasingly expensive designs companies are doing," Meyer says.

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