Friday, November 20, 2009

IBM discontinues Cell chip line, PS4 affected

IBM is discontinuing the Cell chip line of products. A successor to the current PowerXCell-8i chip will not be brought to market, the company's Vice President of Deep Computing, David Turek, told the German IT news site Heise.

Turek did note that the Cell design was not dead and would in parts be implemented across IBM's various other chip designs. The future, though, belongs to hybrid designs and heterogenous multiprocessing, Turek said.

The ramifications for a possible successor to the PlayStation3, which contains the Cell chip, could be significant. Its architecture can no longer be Cell-based, which would entail the following: Firstly, backwards compatibility to the PS3 would no longer be possible on a hardware basis. It would have to be emulated, which is always the worse option. And, secondly, Sony could no longer look forward to a relatively cheap research and development budget for the PS4.

Over the past two years, various reports have sprung up that Sony was very much considering a Cell-based chip for the PS4.

The plan to use variants of Cell in future PlayStation iterations was always in place, explains [Impress Watch technology writer Hiroshige Goto], which is why Sony invested so heavily in the chipset. However, while the use of the Cell in the PS4 may seem like Sony just sticking with its original plan, the real reason could be that the company in its current form doesn't have the reserves to create another chipset and build all the requisite development tools above it.

Going with Cell has the benefits of keeping production costs down for the PS4 and also allowing cutting game development costs due to a consistent architecture. Sony would also be able to include a smaller chip size from the start, potentially reducing the system's retail price.

Of course, IBM would not discontinue a chip line if Sony was still interested in it. So we can safely assume that Sony changed its mind. But why? A Cell-based solution would have had many advantages for the company, as noted above. One possible explanation would be that Sony has cancelled its plans for another PlayStation and will be leaving the home console market. Analysts discussed this option years ago.

And while the slimmer version and price cut have helped the console gain some market share, the price cut is costing Sony dearly. The Washington Post reported that Sony is further away from profitability than previously thought.

Sony (...) pushed back its target for an operating profit margin of 5 percent to March 2013. Chief Executive Howard Stringer had originally set the target in 2005 for the financial year to March 2008, but plans for recovery were waylaid by the economic slowdown.

In my mind, withdrawing from the home console market altogether is a real possibility. And IBM discontinuing the Cell chip line may be the first indicator of such a move.

EDIT I welcome all people from NeoGAF to read up on the exclusive stories I broke. I understand that some of you people may be suspicious of this blog's title but I can assure you that I am an impartial games journalist (have been for ten years) and work for a German television show focussing on games and technology.

It should not be a taboo to discuss the possibility of Sony withdrawing from the home console market. Given their financial status and their CEO's attitude, it is not out of the question. And with IBM discontinuing the Cell chip, Sony would have to invest a huge research and development budget into a new console. I welcome reasonable discussion and invite you to share your thoughts in the comments section.

EDIT Sony apparently considered the Intel Larrabee for the PlayStation4, a CPU / GPU hybrid, according to Japanese site PC Watch (translated by Joystiq). The plans have likely been abandoned since, as the project has been downgraded and delayed by Intel. An unnamed source within Sony Computer Entertainment is quoted as saying that the chip may be used in future generations: "Larrabee can help us to plan PS5 and PS6, but it cannot make it into PS4."

Sources: Heise (German), IGN, Washington Post
Thanks to: Joystiq