Wednesday, February 14, 2007

What's Next for Moore's Law and its Impact to CE Devices

Recent announcements from Intel and IBM about new breakthroughs in silicon fabrication technologies have poised the question, how does this affect the CE space?

First, a brief summary on Moore's Law. Gordon Moore, a co-founder of Intel, observed the trend that transistor density was doubling every 24 months. He postulated that this trend would continue in the future. This is not a "natural" law like the First Law of Thermodynamics in that it is based on various technology improvements rather than physical phenomena. Nevertheless, the "law" has continued to hold true due to many breakthroughs in semiconductor design and manufacturing.

As a result having twice as many transistors to utilize every 18 or 24 months, designers can either add more features to their die or keep the transistor count constant and reduce the die size by half, and thereby reduce the manufacturing cost, or do a combination of both. The latter accounts for the unparalleled price reductions seen in semiconductors. The trend for the former was to add more complex features to the microarchicture of the processor such as out-of-order execution found in the Pentium Pro processor, hardware multithreading and larger on-die caches. Now, the trend has been to add multiple processor cores to each die to increase the on-chip parallelism at a thread level rather than at the instruction level.

Here are my thoughts and personal opinions on the impact to consumer electronics:

1. Extra transistor budget will be used for more integrated System-on-a-Chip (SoC) designs and eventually multicore processors. More highly integrated devices will reduce size, cost and power consumption of the product. Many consumer electronics devices today are not constrained by processing power but the trend toward processing high definition video content requires about 8x the bandwidth and storage as standard 480i video.

2. Some breakthroughs announced on reducing transistor leakage current and supply voltage will translate into lower power and longer battery life devices. This is a key area in improving the utility of these devices for consumers.

3. Improved functionality and utility of the devices enabled by semiconductor improvements. For example, large solid state disk drives using Flash memory instead of magnetic disk drives for portable media players such as Apple's Video iPod. Or ubiquitous Internet access embedded into the device using WiFi, 3G, or WiMAX radio access.

Just as semiconductor technologies have enabled today's mobile phones, digital cameras, and personal computers, new categories of consumer devices will be enabled by these developments in the future. It's up to us to figure out how to make them.

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