In the world of CMOS semiconductor process, the fundamental heartbeat that drives the continuing evolution of all the devices and computers we use and governs at a fundamantal level hte services we can layer on top of them is the continual shrinkage of the transistors we build upon, and we are used to the regular cadence of miniaturization, generally led by Intel, as we progress from one generation to the next. 32nm logic is so old-fashioned, 22nm parts are in volume production across the entire CPU spectrum, 14 nm parts have started to appear, and the rumor mill is active with reports of initial shipments of 10 nm parts in mid-2016. But there is a collective nervousness about the transition to 7 nm, the next step in the industry process roadmap, with industry leader Intel commenting at the recent 2015 International Solid State Circuit conference that it may have to move away from conventional silicon materials for the transition to 7 nm parts, and that there were many obstacles to mass production beyond the 10 nm threshold.

But there are other players in the game, and some of them are anxious to demonstrate that Intel may not have the commanding lead that many observers assume they have. In a surprise move that hints at the future of some of its own products and that will certainly galvanize both partners and competitors, IBM, discounted by many as a spent force in the semiconductor world with its recent divestiture of its manufacturing business, has just made a real jaw-dropper of an announcement – the existence of working 7nm semiconductors.

What was announced?

Make no mistake. These are not working commercial parts or even prototypes of them. They are purely experimental parts to demonstrate fundamental process and material innovations. But they are working parts with functional 7nm transistors well before they were expected. The product of a partnership between IBM, Samsung, GlobalFoundaries and SUNY Polytechnic Institute’s Colleges of Nanoscale Science and Engineering, these are the semiconductor industry’s first 7 nanometer (nm) node test chips with functional transistors.

Why is this important?

This is a big deal for several reasons, ranging from blatant self-promotion to enabling a deep competing ecosystem of manufacturers to continue to challenge Intel. On a purely image level, this serves notice on those who have written IBM off as a technology innovator. While IBM has not always managed to efficiently monetize its innovations in the past (as evidenced by its exit from the semiconductor manufacturing business), the company that wrote its logo in atoms in 1990 has continued to foster a deep reservoir of world-class emiconductor and materials science IP, and has in fact released a steady cadence of semiconductor innovations over the years. As it becomes more adept at working in partnership with other world-class organizations such as SUNY, Global Foundries and its growing Open POWER partners, I expect that its presence on the world stage as a fundamental innovator in device and system-level innovation will become more visible over time.

From an industry competitive perspective it clearly signals that Intel will continue to face real competition as IBM and others make efforts to promote their technology and license to major global competitors. Even if this is not the eventual technology that makes it into mass production, it is a lot of valuable IP that can accelerate the commercialization trajectory of derived processes and products, ensuring that Intel is faced with aggressive competitors. And it is always a good idea to have the dominant vendor in any segment feeling the heat from competitors breathing down their neck …

On a more tactical level, this announcement also serves as indirect but powerful affirmation that IBM will almost certainly continue development of its mainframe and POWER CPU technologies. While IBM made absolutely no direct linkage between this announcement and any product roadmaps, the emotional connection is easy to make – if they can deliver working example of something that no one else in the world has done, surely they can be counted on to deliver enhanced mainframe processors, POWER8+, POWER9 and subsequent products over the next two to three years.

Stay tuned – it should not be long before Intel fires back, at a minimum with more information about their own 7nm program, and the race will be intersting. In the end everyone who is planning on buying computing hardware will be a winner.