Intel announced this weekend that it had mastered a new design that makes computing more powerful, less expensive and so much more efficient that mobile devices like cell phones soon may accomplish tasks reserved until recently for desktop computers and other equipment with larger processors.
Executives at the world's largest manufacturer of computer chips said they had achieved this long-sought goal by using new materials to make transistors - the microscopic switches found on all computer chips - so their size could be reduced significantly.
The development means that the density of transistors on a chip can be doubled, making computers faster, and that the cost of powering transistors can be cut by nearly a third, the company said.
"Ten years ago, many of us wondered if we'd ever get to this point. Not only have we gotten to the point, but it probably didn't take us quite as much time as we thought it would have," Mark T. Bohr, a senior fellow at Intel, said in a written statement.
Hours after Intel publicly disclosed it had reached this milestone, International Business Machines announced that it had developed a similar technology in collaboration with Advanced Micro Devices, Intel's chief rival, and would begin using it in products next year.
"Until now, the chip industry was facing a major roadblock in terms of how far we could push current technology. After more than 10 years of effort, we now have a way forward," T.C. Chen, vice president of science and technology at IBM Research, said in a written statement.
Intel and IBM appeared headed for a dispute over who had won the race to build the 45-nanometer transistor, which is so small that more than 300 can fit on a red blood cell.
These advances are the latest in a series of fundamental improvements in chip design that have long driven the technology revolution. According to the tenet known as Moore's Law, named for Intel co-founder Gordon E. Moore, progress in building chips doubles the power of computer processors about every 18 months.
But this axiom is more a historical observation, and engineers recently had become increasingly skeptical about whether the rate of progress could be maintained. Intel's announcement signaled that the pace could continue for the time being.
The key to the breakthrough is the use of materials that limit the leakage of electrical current, a problem that had become increasingly vexing as the size of transistors shrunk. Both Intel and IBM said they would use metallic elements instead of silicon dioxide as the new insulator.