Cell: VHS or Betamax?

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People and pundits have had their initial say about the Cell processor and infrastructure.

However, one angle hasn’t been explored, and it may prove to be the decisive one in the years ahead.

The question is, “Will the Cell world be an open one like the PC world, or closed like the Mac world. Maybe more to the point, will it be open like VHS video was, with many manufacturers, or closed like (Sony’s) Betamax was?”

In other words, if you want Cell technology a year or two from now, will there be a PS3-compatible world out there, or will there just be a PS3?

Moving a bit further up the food chain, will companies like Asus be building IBM Cell-compatible workstation motherboards, or will there be just IBM Cell workstations?

IBM, overall, has some powerful reasons to make it open. Sony and Toshiba will probably make most or all of their own Cells, with IBM being left with everything else. Unless they have “Empire Strikes Back” delusions of grandeur in the PC world (and selling their PC business indicates that they don’t), they’ll want to make and sell Cells to anyone and everyone who wants to build systems around it.

Sony, on the other hand, has run a closed environment with its Playstations. There are no Playstation2-compatible consoles out there.

If the PS3 world consists of just the PS3, or the IBM Cell, take it or leave it, that will hand the PC world a huge advantage. It will be Betamax vs. VHS, IBM vs. Apple all over again.

Just to use the overclocker’s niche as an example: what do you think is more likely to yield overclockable platforms: a world where a lot of companies make products, or a world where just one makes the product?

Some might say, “How about iPod vs. other MP3 players?” Maybe, but who is more likely to come up with innovative products: one company or an army of them?

That’s not necessarily an obvious answer in the hallways of corporate execdom. Current PC mainstay companies will be in a damned-if-we-do, damned-if-we-don’t position. Build a great PC console, and you cannibalize your more profitable PC sales. Shy away from it, and somebody else will cannibalize your more profitable PC sales.

IBM ought to be well aware of this, after all, that’s how they lost the PC industry back in the eighties. Sony ought to also, after all, that’s how they lost the video recorder industry.

Have they learned?

We have long predicted that the PC world would eventually split into a small workstation-like niche, and consumer-electronics computers for everyone else. We think developments like Cell are the beginnings of that big change.

But it could be a false or premature start if the Cell world is more proprietary than open.

Ed

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