Sony's years-long quest to build the world's most powerful chip in the PS3's Cell may have inadvertently led to the creation of the Xbox 360's own processor, according to a new book by the people who designed both chips.
The story, related in "The Race for a New Game Machine" by former IBM employees David Shippy and Mickie Phillips, is full of corporate tomfoolery and R&D shadiness. Here's the gist of what exactly went down: In 2001, Sony entered into a partnership with Toshiba and IBM to design the Cell, committing $500 million to a five-year plan. A year later, however, Microsoft approached IBM and asked them to build a chip for their own next-gen console, what would later become the Xbox 360. In 2003, IBM's Adam Bennett showed Microsoft the specs for the Cell, which was still in the midst of development. Microsoft then contracted IBM to build a chip, using what they had built thus far for the Cell as the core for the design.
Sony and IBM had agreed that IBM would be able to sell the Cell to whoever they wanted, but Sony hadn't figured it'd be so eager to do so, and especially not to its biggest rival. The deal led to some awkward office situations: "IBM employees hiding their work from Sony and Toshiba engineers in the cubicles next to them; the Xbox chip being tested a few floors above the Cell design teams," The Wall Street Journal wrote in its review. It wasn't all fun and games, though. Shippy wrote that he felt "contaminated" as "he sat down with the Microsoft engineers, helping them to sketch out their architectural requirements with lessons learned from his earlier work on PlayStation."
In the end it all sounds like another cautionary tale warning of the corporate hubris commonly associated with the mistakes Sony has made with the PS3. IBM eventually delivered both designs to manufacturing on time, but there was a problem with the first run. Microsoft had a plan B and had placed a backup order for manufacturing at another facility. Sony didn't for whatever reason, and had to wait on the IBM factory to get up and running again. So, in a sense, Microsoft got the chip that Sony had helped design before Sony did. The 360 hit its launch date and hit the market early, the PS3 suffered delays and the rest is history.
Shippy and Phipps are quick to stop their story from turning into a tale of how Sony may have lost the console war, however. "Both Sony and Microsoft were extremely successful at achieving their goals," they write. Whether or not you believe that, here's a whole new perspective on how we got where we are today.