Intel teaches IBM how to reveal chip breakthroughs

Long learning process

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Were you to invent the most fundamental change to processor guts in over forty years, you'd want to tell a lot of people about it. So why on Earth did Intel and IBM reveal such a breakthrough on Friday night, as Silicon Valley went to sleep? That question sparked our interest when Intel and IBM's news statements about new transistor designs appeared together at 9 pm.

Chip makers have used silicon as the element of choice for such transistors for more than forty years. Now, because of atomic-level constraints, they've had to a pick a new element - hafnium - and a pair of undisclosed metals to get the same job done. Finding the right materials and manufacturing techniques to produce these new transistors has taken years and years of blood, sweat and tears research. How funny then that after a decade of grunting in the labs Intel and IBM simultaneously nailed the scientific breakthrough, issued press releases about their achievements at the same time and shared in their ambivalence as to whether or not anyone read about the game-changing events.

Cough

In reality, Intel's engineers did want their deserved glory, and they wanted it all to themselves. But IBM had to spoil the show.

Last week, Intel revealed its transistor breakthrough in front of a group of reporters at the company's Santa Clara headquarters, although the press were sworn to temporary secrecy about the meeting.

The company showed off the so-called High-K + metal gate transistors that have already started to replace standard silicon-based transistors in chips made via Intel's new 45nm manufacturing process. Such chips will ship later this year. [In a previous report, we described some of the fine-grained details behind the new transistors.]

Armed with the fresh transistors, Intel has promised better performing products for years to come - products that match up to Moore's Law.

In addition, Intel has claimed more than a one-year edge over rivals by adding the new transistors to its mainstream production line so quickly.

"It shows you the lead Intel has today and is likely to continue to drive in the marketplace," said Intel's CEO Paul Otellini, speaking to the reporters.

Not so fast, said IBM.

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