Deal puts Rambus in future PlayStation

Sony and Toshiba license technology from the chip designer that likely will be incorporated into a future version of the game console.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
3 min read
Sony and Toshiba have licensed technology from Rambus that likely will be incorporated into a future version of the PlayStation game console.

The two Japanese giants have licensed "Yellowstone," a high-speed interface for connecting memory to microprocessors, and "Redwood," a chip-to-chip connection, from the processor designer, the companies said.

Both Yellowstone and Redwood would be used to enhance the broadband capabilities of "Cell," a complex microprocessor that will likely power an upcoming version of Sony's PlayStation.

Cell, which is expected to come out in late 2004 or early 2005, substantially differs from current chips on the market. Developed by IBM, Sony and Toshiba, the processor will contain multiple chips inside a single piece of silicon and will be geared toward delivering video, entertainment, interactive gaming and other content. It will have the ability to do north of 1 trillion mathematical calculations per second, roughly 100 times more than a single Pentium 4 chip running at 2.5GHz.

Chips churning at that speed, though, need to be surrounded by high-speed links and similarly speedy chips to function properly, which is where Yellowstone and Redwood come in. Yellowstone can transfer data up to 100 gigabits per second, or three times faster than current high-speed memory, said Laura Stark, vice president of the memory interface group at Rambus. In the end, the two technologies will allow chips to exchange audio or graphics data extremely rapidly, the companies said.

Last November, Toshiba took out a license to manufacture Yellowstone-style memory, necessary for the Cell processor to take advantage of the technology. IBM will not require an independent license to participate in incorporating Rambus technology into Cell, Rambus executives said.

"Rambus is and will be the key player in the ultra high-speed interface technology," Ken Kutaragi, chief executive officer of Sony Computer Entertainment, said in a statement. "This enables us to create a wide range of applications and platforms, from high-end systems to digital consumer-electronics products within Sony Group."

The deal, which is expected to bring Rambus $28 million in revenue over the next 18 months, also in some ways marks the beginning of a new, or third, life for the controversial chip designer.

Rambus specializes in chip interfaces, the electronic ports that allow chips to communicate with one another. In the mid-'90s, several chip executives and analysts said that memory based around a Rambus interface, called RDRAM, would become standard in PCs because of how it improved performance. Nintendo and Sony both incorporated RDRAM into gaming consoles.

But, while the technology did in fact boost performance on many PCs, RDRAM proved difficult to manufacture and cost far more than standard memory, SDRAM, or DDR DRAM, a high-speed version of standard memory. PC makers and eventually Intel, once a huge supporter of Rambus, drastically curtailed the use of RDRAM.

With product sales and licensing fees in jeopardy, Rambus launched into its second life, as a litigant. Starting in 2000, the company began to seek patent royalties and pursue lawsuits against Micron, Infineon and other memory companies. The company said that patents it filed in 1990 entitled it to royalty payments on all of the SDRAM and DDR DRAM ever sold.

Potentially, the lawsuits could have entitled the company to billions in royalties. Infineon and others, however, alleged that Rambus committed fraud in securing those patents and, so far, the memory companies have won in court.

Since then, the company has tried to position itself as the kindler, gentler Rambus, with executives stating that the company will work more on chip connections and spend less time in court.