Moore's law on trial
But as big a problem as batteries are in the mobile market, there are much more fundamental challenges that will make the future of the microprocessor market different from its past.
For one, the complexity of chip design and the intricacies of the physics involved is increasing, making design a much riskier and more demanding process. "And you really, really need to worry about that," Segars said.
The reason for that worry is risk and cost. "The cost of your tape-out is going to be astronomical," he said. "When you've written that check for a million or two million dollars for your [chip-making lithography] masks, you want to hope that chip works. So the effort going into validating and verifying a design has gone up by orders of magnitude."
Another challenge that Segars sees is caused by the increasing stratification of the semiconductor industry – a development that has brought many benefits, but which also has its downside.
"When prople first started building semiconductor devices," he said, "they did everything themselves in fully vertically integrated companies. People had fabs, product design, manufacturing, case design – they did the whole thing themselves."
That has changed over the years – mostly for the better, from Segars' point of view – and now the industry is filled with companies specializing in various areas such as design, IP, electronic design automation (EDA), packaging, chip-baking, and so on.
This specialization has been great for spreading the costs and risks around, and for taking advantage of the economies of scale – TSMC and Global Foundries, for example, produce silicon for many different fabless chip designers.
Dying arts and fading fabs
But with more companies focusing on design rather than manufacture, Segars sees a danger. "The skills you need to close out the timing at the transistor level are becoming a dying art," he warned.
"As we go forward, and start worrying about very exotic processes that we're going to have to deal with in the future, those transistor skills are going to need to become very, very important once again," he cautioned. "And as a designer, you're going to have to worry about everything – from architecture down to transistors."
But no matter how "disaggregated" the semiconductor industry becomes, eventually somebody has to actually manufacture the chips themselves. Segars reminded his audience of the famous quote from T.J. Rodgers of Cypress Semiconductor that "Real men have fabs," but then pointed out the obvious fact that there are far fewer fab companies around than there used to be – and that such shrinkage in the manufacturing base poses its own problems.
As process size shrinks, so do the number of fabs able to produce chips at those geometries (click to enlarge)
As chip-baking process sizes shrink, Segars said, "We've seen the cost of developing processes go up and up and up, and now it costs you billions of dollars – as I'm sure everybody knows – to develop a new process. It costs you billions of dollars to buy all the equipment for it, and so fewer prople are doing it."
From a customer's point of view, a small number of strong, efficient, advanced fabs is not a problem – in fact, the same economies of scale that make industry disaggregation a good thing make fewer, busier fabs a good thing.
Four customers does not a market make
But there is one potentially troubling problem, Segars said – and it's not for the fabs or their customers, it's for equipment suppliers. "The physics problems that you have to solve when you go to smaller and smaller geometries are getting harder and harder to solve, and so the cost of the equipment that you need for the next generation process goes up and up."
That price inflation is not in and of itself the real market problem, though. "The problem is that the supply chain that builds that equipment for the foundries has a bit of trouble dealing with its return on investment."
Simply put, the foundry-equipment market is shrinking. "When the world moved from 200 millimeter wafers to 300-millimeter wafers, if you were [fab-equipment manufacturer] ASML or somebody like that, you had a whole lot of customers that you could go and sell that equipment to."
Now, however, the move to 450-millimeter wafers is the new hotness – which is great for economies of scale at the foundry level, but not so great for foundry-equipment makers. "There's only going to be about four guys who are going to build those size wafers," Segars said, "so if you're doing all the R&D and your customer size is four, that is a bit of a problem."
Next page: Moore's law repealed
1x Dairy Milk Bar
1x fishing rod
1x treadmill with dynamo
1x 30-something single woman
Not all that portable admittedly, but I've got a patent pending on a nationwide network of charging stations :)
What on earth has happened here?
A thoughtful, intelligent, fascinating and well written article from which I learnt rather a lot. Without any jokes, satire or the faintest smell of clickbait in it. Have I logged on to the wrong site?
Is there actually a continuing market for slightly faster kit at higher cost in the current climate? IMHO most kit has been running fast enough for the last couple of years, despite constant efforts to force us to buy more CPU to support the same functionality.
Extreme gamers can link a few GPUs together, data warehousers can add terabytes of SD disk, and the rest of us can upgrade to Linux or Windows XP running Libre Office ;-)
This article suggests it's time for software to catch up with the hardware.
Back to the 70's then?
Maybe the way to make these devices to run faster is to tighten up the code. After all we've been getting rather a lot of bloat whilst Moore's Law has applied. In the 70's when processor time cost money it was a time when shaving the time off your code had a distinct advantage, and they didn't have cut'n'paste coders in that era.
I'd predict a trimming back of all those functions that don't get used unless it's the 5th Tuesday in February, to make what does get used rather a lot quicker.
Tux - possibly the home of better software.
Dedicated hardware best suited?
Isn't this rather obvious? The microprocessor exemplifies the concept of jack of all trades, master of none. Frankly the only reason my netbook is capable of showing me animé is because there is enough grunt power to decode the video data in real time. But then my PVR with a very slow ARM processor can do much the same as it pushes the difficult stuff to the on-chip DSP.
Likewise the older generation of MP3 players were essentially a Z80 core hooked to a small DSP, all capable of extracting ten hours out of a single AAA cell.
Go back even further, the Psion 3a was practically built upon this concept. Bloody great ASIC held an x86 clone (V30) and sound, display, interfacing, etc. Things were only powered up as they were actually required. In this way, a handheld device not unlike an original XT in spec could run for ages on a pair of double-As.
As the guy said, batteries are crap. Anybody who uses their smartphone like it's their new best friend will know that daily recharging is the norm, plus a car charger if using sat-nav. So with this in mind, it makes sense to have the main processor "capable" without being stunning, and push off complicated stuff to dedicated hardware better suited for the task, that can be turned off when not needed. Well, at least until we can run our shiny goodness on chocolatey goodness!