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IBM, Sony, Toshiba push Cell chip beyond games

Triumvirate publishes details about the architecture in an attempt to entice developers to come up with new uses for it.

The three companies involved in making the Cell microprocessor have released new details about the chip in an attempt to break its reputation as only being able to power the next Sony PlayStation console.

Sony Group, Toshiba and IBM--sometimes referred to as STI--on Thursday published some previously undisclosed technical specifications and software standards for the Cell architecture, and more documents are expected to be released.

The companies said they are hoping the documents will entice software developers, business partners, and academic and research organizations to come up with new uses for the Cell chip.

So far, Sony has said it will use the chip inside the upcoming PlayStation3 gaming console, while Toshiba has said it will incorporate Cell into TV sets.

Some analysts have speculated that the Cell chip could power everything from cell phones to servers. Others are comparing the Cell chip to processors made by Intel, Advanced Micro Devices and Texas Instruments.

But the Sony-Toshiba-IBM group has had a difficult time selling Cell outside its own sphere of influence. The triumvirate signed its first outside customer only in June, when Mercury Computer Systems, which makes machines for petroleum companies and defense contractors, said it would adopt the chip for some of its future computers.

The documents being released include specifications on how to use the Cell chip in broadband applications; how to handle distributed processing and multimedia applications; and details on how the Cell chip works with computer languages such as C and C++, Application Binary Interface, and Assembly languages.

However, all of the new documents were not available at the time of this writing. IBM managed to post an overview of the processor's multicore architecture and five detailed specifications related to the Cell chip's ultra high-speed communications, high-powered graphics, multimedia and low-power capabilities on its Web site.

Additionally, Sony's Web site highlights the Cell chip's support for multiple operating systems, including Linux, through virtualization technology. Virtualization software lets a computer run multiple operating systems simultaneously .

Toshiba said it would release its documents publicly once it completes its customer support structure.

The Cell chip--which consists of a Power processing core surrounded by several helper processors--has been in the planning stages since the formation of the group in March 2001. Technical specifications were released to the public at San Francisco's International Solid State Circuit Conference, or ISSCC, in February.

The documents being released also include additional information about peripherals related to the Cell chip's "Super Companion Chip," which can record 48 separate MPEG 2 streams at once.