CELL Microprocessor III

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Battlelines of the Digital Living Room (A Musing)

In a previous article, this author pointed out that the CELL processor appears to be the cornerstone of STI’s strategy in winning the battle of the digital living room. That is, the CELL processor will form the foundation of Sony’s renewed gambit to bypass the traditional personal computer and capture the digital hub of household communications and entertainment, a lucrative market that is also targeted by Microsoft, Intel, and Apple. Interestingly enough, Microsoft is well positioned regardless of whether the traditional personal computer or the game console wins the battle for the heart of the digital hub. Microsoft can adjust and retain relevance regardless of the outcome of the battle of the digital living room. However, the strategic alliances formed by Microsoft with IBM, and Sony with Toshiba and IBM leaves Intel and Apple out in the cold if the game consoles gain ascendancy as the hub of the digital living room. With the battlelines as given, it seems natural that Apple and Intel would seek to create a third alliance, one that can deliver both the silicon and the software stack to compete for the digital living room against the MI (Microsoft-IBM) alliance and the STI alliance. With the shocking announcements of Apple’s transition from PPC to x86, pundits have espoused various theories and reasons behind the switch. While the short term justifications of the PPC970FX failing to reach 3 GHz, chronic PPC processor shortages from both IBM and Motorola (Freescale), or higher than desired processor prices may all have some validity, the long term justification may be as simple as the formation of the strategic alliance in the battle for the digital living room for players left out by the previous alliances.

A long time ago, before Steve Jobs returned to his role as Apple’s CEO, he was asked what he would do it he was placed in charge of reviving Apple’s flagging fortunes. Steve Job’s answer at the time was that he would keep the Macintosh alive as long as necessary to move on to the next big thing. Following this theme in the years after Steve Job’s return, Apple has positioned itself as the manufacturer of a digital hub where a Macintosh computer is the center of activity for various digital appliances such as a DV camcorder or a music player. In this sense, Sony’s gambit to capture the hub of the digital living room most directly threatens Apple’s future. More ominously, Apple would find that if it were ever pitted against Sony in a battle for the center of the digital hub, the prospect of using the CELL processor in the battle against Sony would be one that is highly unpalatable. That is, if Apple should adopt the CELL processor, it would become a de facto junior partner in the STI alliance. Then, if the battle of the digital living room materializes along the computer-game console battleline, Apple could find itself having to compete against Sony on a processor that Sony co-specified with IBM, a processor that has an unusual programming model with the tool chains being co-developed by Sony, and a processor that Sony plans to manufacture on a massive scale in its own fabrication plant.

The implication is that Apple would find the CELL processor to be undesirable from both technical and strategic perspectives. Steve Job’s ambiguous statements that “Intel has a good roadmap” may be a simple statement that expresses his belief that Intel has a roadmap that is better suited to Apple’s long term strategic plans. However, despite the drawbacks of a CELL-like processor on traditional computer centric applications, it seems clear that a heavily multi-threaded CELL-like approach to multimedia applications is the correct approach. The question then is if Intel will soon embark on or has already secretly embarked on the development of a CELL-like processor that will enable Apple and Intel to challenge the MI and STI alliances. From Apple’s perspective, a roadmap filled with low power mobile processors, cheap Celeron processors, and enhanced with the promise of new types of devices that can enable it to adjust more rapidly to changing market trends would be a roadmap that is ideal to its continued development as a corporate entity and continued battle to win the digital hub of future homes.

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