IBM Targets Advanced Boxes With PowerPC Chip Release

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Big Blue boldly entered the high-end set-top-chip market by introducing a "PowerPC system on a chip" targeted for next-generation set-top boxes, but IBM Corp.' s cable strategy was met with skepticism by the industry' s silicon leaders.

The announcement marks IBM Microelectronics' entrance into a new market. It now provides digital-video chips for French operator TPS and operators in Hong Kong, China, Singapore and Taiwan, which IBM refused to name. In Korea, IBM has sold digital-video chips to Samsung Electronics.

IBM's new chips, based on its PowerPC architecture, are composed of "PowerPC 405" and "401" processors, and integrate an MPEG-2 audio/video decoder, a memory-interface subsystem and peripheral interfaces, including an IDE (integrated drive electronics) interface to support a hard drive.

The "STB032xx" and "STB034xx" PowerPC-based chips run at 108 megahertz and 162 MHz, respectively, with 16-kilobyte instruction and 8-KB data caches.

Also announced was a companion audio/video/transport decoder chip that IBM said enables picture-in-picture and digital-video recording. Amand Cochet, IBM Microelectronics' marketing manager for digital-video products, said this chip is capable of two-channel decoding.

IBM has been "quietly" making digital-video chips for several years, Cochet said, and has accumulated much intellectual property. It is now targeting a broader U.S. cable and satellite set-top market for the new integrated-chip family.

IBM is considering supporting OpenCable-compliant set-tops, Cochet said. The new chips, he added, can run OpenTV Inc.' s software and Canal Plus S.A.' s "Media-highway" software; real-time operating systems such as PSOS and Wind River Systems Inc.' s; and Linux. The company is also looking at supporting Microsoft Corp.' s "Microsoft TV."

IBM plans to make samples of the PowerPC 405 chips available in May, with production volumes available in July. The PowerPC 401 version is slated for availability in the second half of this year.

Cochet refused to cite prices for the chip, fearing that they would be "misunderstood," but he said they would be competitive relative to other solutions. He pointed out that adding an IDE interface to a chip usually adds $3 to $4 to the price.

IBM' s entrance into the U.S. cable market was hailed as wise by Jay Srivasta, senior analyst for Gartner Group Inc.' s Dataquest, who said IBM' s processors are suited for power-hungry Internet applications and the high-end set-top market that' s likely to emerge as demand for digital-video recording and other applications heats up. IBM, he added, "doesn' t want to participate in a low-cost market."

Currently, he said, "IBM is not a big player in the set-top market at all," and has not been able to compete in a market where chip makers vie for low-end set-top business. Particularly in the satellite-TV set-top market, semiconductor manufacturers are under pressure to produce very low-cost silicon.

IBM is not in the top 10 of either the satellite or cable integrated-circuit set-top markets, Srivasta said.

By targeting higher-end boxes that can support emerging interactive technologies and "convergence-type" products, however, "IBM' s doing the right thing-they' re looking ahead," he added. "A major opportunity for IBM lies in the U.S. cable market," where cable operators-faced with the prospect of losing analog customers to satellite services-must differentiate themselves to win and retain consumers, he said.

Srivasta said Dataquest is forecasting that set-tops with hard drives will flourish, based on the early success of time-shifting services from TiVo Inc. and ReplayTV Inc.

He also predicted that cable operators will offer more than one type of advanced digital set-top to subscribers, including high-end models, thus opening up a market for more powerful silicon.

With 70 million analog customers who could be potentially transitioned over to digital-cable services, the market for chip makers is very attractive. STMicroelectronics and LSI Logic Corp. are currently the industry leaders in set-top microprocessors.

"No single semiconductor vendor is going to capture the entire market," Srivasta said.

Less enthusiastic and complimentary about IBM' s splash was Broadcom Corp. director of product marketing for cable Rich Nelson, who questioned the viability of a PowerPC-based chip in a market that widely uses MIPS (millions of instructions per second) chip architecture.

The PowerPC platform, Nelson said, doesn' t run Microsoft TV and PowerTV Inc.' s operating systems-the two platforms AT & T Broadband and Time Warner Cable are using for their large-scale digital set-tops.

He also questioned the apparent lack of support in the IBM chips for 2-D and 3-D graphics, out-of-band channels and transport interfaces.

On the bright side, Nelson said Big Blue' s announcement "brings additional credibility to the marketplace ... and makes us comfortable with our strategy."

Integrating the central processing unit with other set-top functions, he added, may sacrifice flexibility in adapting to different user requirements, including switching CPUs to support different operating systems or sets of functions.

Echoing Nelson on the integration issue was Chris Day, senior director of marketing for C-Cube Microsystems Inc.' s broadband division, which supplies MPEG encoding and decoding silicon for digital-video devices.

Day said high-end digital-video-box customers are choosing to use separate, high-performance CPUs, while midrange and low-end set-tops are more suited for integrated chips.

C-Cube' s silicon is found in set-tops used by several U.S., European and Asian operators, including Telewest Communications plc, MediaOne Group Inc., Hongkong Telecom and Canal Plus.

Like IBM and Broadcom, C-Cube is bullish on supporting the time-shifting programming and storage functions in set-tops, Day said, in addition to supporting digital-video-to-MPEG conversion, which C-Cube' s silicon now supports. Fire-wire support is forthcoming, he added.

C-Cube uses a SPARC (scalable processor architecture) chip architecture and supports middleware from PowerTV, Liberate Technologies, OpenTV and Canal Plus.

With C-Cube promising several announcements this year, the race to grab a share of silicon real estate inside the next-generation advanced digital set-top boxes should prove highly competitive.

Motorola Broadband Communications Sector could not be reached for comment. But a Scientific-Atlanta Inc. spokesman said S-A "is always looking for unique and innovative products that complement our set-top solutions."

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