Engineers say Sony R&D cash went into the Xbox 360's CPU


— 9:45 AM on January 2, 2009

The Xbox 360 has turned out to be a formidable competitor to the PlayStation 3, and Sony may have unknowingly contributed to its success. So say David Shippy and Mickie Phipps, who wrote a book about how IBM engineers quietly built the 360's Xenon processor in parallel with the PS3's Cell CPU. The Wall Street Journal has the details:

When the companies entered into their partnership in 2001, Sony, Toshiba and IBM committed themselves to spending $400 million over five years to design the Cell, not counting the millions of dollars it would take to build two production facilities for making the chip itself. IBM provided the bulk of the manpower, with the design team headquartered at its Austin, Texas, offices. Sony and Toshiba sent teams of engineers to Austin to live and work with their partners in an effort to have the Cell ready for the Playstation 3's target launch, Christmas 2005.

But a funny thing happened along the way: A new "partner" entered the picture. In late 2002, Microsoft approached IBM about making the chip for Microsoft's rival game console, the (as yet unnamed) Xbox 360. In 2003, IBM's Adam Bennett showed Microsoft specs for the still-in-development Cell core. Microsoft was interested and contracted with IBM for their own chip, to be built around the core that IBM was still building with Sony.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Sony and Toshiba had agreed that IBM would sell the Cell to other clients. However, they didn't expect IBM to sell "key parts" of the chip to a competing console maker before development was through.

In The Race for a New Game Machine, Shippy and Phipps recount situations like IBM staffers "hiding their work from Sony and Toshiba engineers in the cubicles next to them" and testing the Xenon "a few floors" up from the Cell designers. They say Microsoft ended up with its first Xenon chips six weeks before Sony, too.

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