No Cash in These Chips -- Yet

If there's one thing I've learned in covering technology for more than a decade, it's this: Always discount hype. Or, more specifically, if it has appeared as a major story in TheNew York Times that featured quotes from bigwigs promising sweeping innovations, you've got at least two years to profit from it as an investor. Assuming there will be any profits to be earned, that is.

Indeed, the quest for Rule Breakers is often a trek through a quagmire of broken promises -- innovations that never really delivered as expected. Remember Betamax? Wrinkle-free shirts? A comfortable seat in coach class? The shrewd investor approaches every promise with a furrowed brow instead of starry-eyed enthusiasm. And that's why you can color me skeptical about this week's announcement by IBM (NYSE: IBM  ) , Sony (NYSE: SNE  ) , and Toshiba (OTC BB: TOSBF) that they have created a new chip architecture called Cell that promises to revolutionize the way semiconductors process digital media and graphics.

The idea behind Cell is actually pretty brilliant. According to a Wall Street Journal report, Cell will be a collection of chips that contains a central processing unit that distributes instructions to eight other integrated processors. That should allow it to handle many more tasks at once: up to 10 versus two for today's chips from Intel (Nasdaq: INTC  ) and rival Advanced Micro Devices (NYSE: AMD  ) . All told, Cell's processing power could rival some of today's most powerful supercomputers.

Too bad the triumvirate went a touch too far with its bullish pronouncements. Listen to this quote from Masashi Muromachi, head of Toshiba's semiconductor operations: "We are proud that Cell, a revolutionary microprocessor with a brand new architecture that leapfrogs the performance of existing processors... " Really? Sorry, guys, but this so-called breakthrough chip hasn't leapfrogged anything. It won't be available till later this year. And even that assumes that a working prototype debuts in May as promised. If it does, Cell would make its way into Sony's PlayStation 3.

Bottom line: Right now, Cell is still in jail, waiting to break out and change the competitive dynamics of the semiconductor industry. The problem is that such sweeping change has been tried dozens if not hundreds of times. Failures abound; Intel's Itanium comes to mind as only the latest. That's not to say Cell will be cast into the scrap heap. Far from it. But it's a giant leap from PlayStations and ultra-high-end supercomputer replacements to high-volume shipments of Linux servers and desktop PCs. Don't expect the transition to happen soon, if ever.

For related Foolishness, see:

  • Is NVE's (Nasdaq: NVEC  ) Spintronics chip technology all spin?
  • Intel isn't waiting for Cell; it's investing in platforms.
  • That's good, because its broken record was making an awful noise.
  • Believe it or not, AMD's news flash was worse.

Is Cell the next big thing in semiconductors? What's next in autos? Aerospace? Energy? Our team of Foolish analysts at Motley Fool Rule Breakers is pondering these questions and more. Join them in their quest for the next ultimate growth stock. A free 30-day trial is yours for the asking.

Fool contributor Tim Beyers has been a downer on Intel, but he doesn't think there's much of a chance Cell will seriously impact the chip maker. What's your take? Share it with other Fools at the Intel discussion board. Tim didn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story at the time of publication. You can find out what's in his portfolio by checking Tim's Fool profile, which is here. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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