Saying Good-Bye to One of Our Own

Alas, Electronic News, we hardly knew ye: RIP.Last week I learned that Electronic News lost a long-time member of the family. Bernie Levine, a fixture within the industry trade press who spent 26 years at Electronic News’ erstwhile print edition, died earlier this month, apparently the result of a rapidly advancing neurological disorder.

I’m not one for long goodbyes, and absolutely loathe the very concept of obituaries; at best, even a novel-length biography can only scratch the surface of what really comprises a life, beyond the facts and figures.

Nevertheless, I feel compelled to mark Bernie’s death and bid him goodbye in these electronic pages. I wasn’t particularly close to Bernie, but I was certainly fond of him, to be sure.

And perhaps it’s even fitting, in a way, that his passage is marked here in the electronic successor to the print trade publication for which he wrote from 1976 to 2002 — countless business decisions were surely made with the information provided by Bernie, decisions that contributed in no small way to the rise of the electronic medium that is the Internet and the World Wide Web.

Thanks for Holding a Nervous Hand, Bernie

When I first started at Electronic News, my appearance raised more than a few eyebrows (those of you that know me know what I’m talking about). But then in the relatively small, conservative world of the semiconductor industry — and in the even smaller world of the semiconductor trade press — it is easy to stand out among the many corporate shills and drones. But Bernie, he was in a class by himself; he had a style that was part old school New York but all Bernard Levine.

Alas, Electronic News (the print edition): we hardly knew ye!But his unique qualities extended far beyond his appearance and manner. He was adept at seeing beyond the marketing baloney we frequently encounter and getting to the heart of an issue quite easily. He had his many years of experience to rely upon, and wasn’t afraid to call things like he saw them. Yet I never saw him exhibit an abrasive manner that one so often sees in journalists; Bernie always seemed to maintain a rather quiet and likeable — if definitely New York — demeanor, and exhibited a subtle humor that sometimes crept into his writing, as well.

In fact, I don’t recall anyone outside of E-News ever having anything but good things to say about Bernie, which I don’t think can be said about anyone else in the trade press, myself included.

He certainly knew semiconductor packaging technology, as well as the passives and components market, inside and out, and I was frequently awed by his seemingly encyclopedic knowledge and historical perspective. When I started here, I was hired to write about capital equipment and process technology, and I was also tasked with helping Bernie on his beats.

At the time I barely understood what a semiconductor was, much less the difference between wire bonding and chipscale packaging. Reflow oven? Is that like an Easy Bake Oven? Fortunately I was able to pick Bernie’s brain when I needed to, and he never seemed to mind my bugging him.

I’ll never forget my first tradeshow, two months after I was hired at E-News: Nepcon West, a packaging show. I was covering it with Bernie, and thank the technology gods I was; I was completely clueless and would have been lost without him. Lead-free packaging? Like I said, at that time I knew more about lead-free gasoline.

But then I’ve made a life out of jumping into things I don’t know much about, like semiconductors — and managing to swim more often than sink, fortunately. But when I started at E-News, Bernie sometimes served as my water wings, and made my initial swim a bit easier.

From 8bit to 64bit: Bernie Was Here for it All

Bernie Levine: the Methusaleh of Electronic News.But I’m certainly not the only one who will miss Bernie; he was no less than a fixture in the industry. We — his fellow writers on E-News — used to joke that when the first transistor was laid down in a gallium substrate 50 some years ago in Bell Labs, Bernie was there to write about it. He hadn’t been around quite that long, but he was certainly an industry Methuselah.

Just think: The year Bernie came along to E-News, NASA’s last Skylab mission had drawn to a close two years before; the last Apollo moon mission a few years before that. Apple Computer had incorporated and released the Apple 1 computer board in kit form in 1976; Microsoft hired its first permanent programmer; Texas Instruments rolled out the first 16bit MPU; Intel rolled out its first 5MHz processor, the 8bit 8085, built on 3-micron technology; and IBM debuted its desktop computer, the IBM 5100, in Japan — the 5100, incidentally, featured a five-inch monochrome display and sold in Japan for around $10,000, a thousand or two more than what it cost back in the States.

Bernie came along at the beginning of the first big change in the chip industry: the PC. Myself, I turned eight years old at the end of 1976, and the only technology I was interested in was bionics. The Six Million Dollar Man and Bionic Woman TV series were still in full swing that year, and every American kid at the time wanted to be either Col. Steve Austin or Jamie Sommers, and I was no exception.

Of course, the industry has changed, evolved and matured since then, and Bernie was there to witness it all. He touched a lot of lives along the way; I can’t possibly begin to tell you how many times I’ve heard: “E-News? Oh, you work with Bernie Levine, don’t you. We love him.” Or: “Hey, you know Bernie Levine, don’t you? He’s great; he’s been around forever.”

Evidently what made Bernie so good at what he did was his passion for technology. Even after a quarter of a century, his attitude wasn’t jaded or cynical when it came to technology itself. In his final column of a series done for his 25-year anniversary with E-News, he reminisced about how technology that was once inconceivable was now mundane, and wondered just what else that was in the realm of science fiction would soon become science fact. I can’t help but feel a little saddened reading that column now, thinking of the many forthcoming technological wonders Bernie won’t get to see.

But I take heart in the fact that he played a long and significant role in the industry, and that our paths crossed for a time, and that I got to know him when I did.

With Bernie’s death the industry has lost a valuable resource, one that can’t really be replaced; he had a perspective that can only be gained with time and experience. And we in the trade press, myself in particular, have lost a valued colleague and friend.

So long, Bernie.

Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site, this is a news story written by me that originally appeared on the now-defunct Electronic News’ website, which is long gone. It’s former sister pub Electronic Design News (EDN) currently holds the copyright to all Electronic News copy (to the best of my knowledge). You can still see a copy of this story at EDN.

Rat Brain Flies Plane

Alas, Electronic News, we hardly knew ye: RIP.OK, this subject was just too good to pass up, if for no other reason than using the above headline. We opted for a toned-down headline when we borrowed this story from our British counterparts (Electronics Weekly), but I just couldn’t let it go.

After all, back in the day I coined the headline “Industry Gets Jiggy with SiGe.” A former Electronic News editor had to be convinced that it was not a naughty reference or otherwise some sort of vague sexual euphemism, but as you can see, it ran. As a newspaper refugee and dyed-in-the-wool smart aleck, I readily admit that I live for this sort of thing.

But beyond the eyebrow raising headline opportunity, the implications of this neural network story boggle the mind. If a neural network based on cultured rat brain cells can pilot a fighter-jet simulator, it’s not hard to make the leap to self-driving, rat brain-controlled cars or even entire rat-brain-based transportation networks. Perhaps a rat brain neural network can finally get the world’s trains and planes to run on time.

Maybe we’ll even have rat brains at the heart of our smart refrigerators someday.

I can see it now. In the not-too-distant future I’ll be sitting in a Silicon Valley coffee shop or waiting in line for a plane at San Francisco International and somebody will just have to bust out their rat brain-based smartphone. “Is that Bluetooth enabled?” someone will ask. “No,” will come the smug reply. “It’s hamster enhanced.”

Mickey Mouse pilot: Walt Disney foresaw the rat-brain neural transportation network.But I can’t help but wonder if all this will open technology up to a whole new host of problems. For example, in the future could terrorists spread the plague via our broad rat brain-based neural networks?

Stem cell research may have been a hot button issue with conservative voters in the 2004 election, but if the Republicans want to stay in power in 2008, they better start spreading the fear about rat brain neural networks post haste. I can hear the campaign commercials already: “John Q. Democrat supports rat brain neural network research, which would leave America vulnerable to attack. If he wins, the terrorists win too.”

And before the e-mail flurry begins, let me just say I’m a registered independent, affiliated with no party whatsoever. I’m a bi-partisan satirist. And before I get scads of indignant e-mail from humorless left-brain research types, let me offer a preemptive lighten-up; it won’t ruin your data to laugh once in awhile.

Anyway, maybe we should start now on developing rival cat brain neural networks that could attack rat brain-based networks, just in case the plague terror scenario happens. Remember what happened last time we didn’t have enough cats when the plague was floating around? Or were you not paying attention in history class?

Another issue to worry about in a rat brain-neural networked world is how would we feed and culture all these rat brain cells? I think perhaps I’ll move my entire portfolio into cheese futures.

Imagine: someone will be driving home from work when they get a call on their hamster enhanced phone. “Honey, the ‘fridge says we’re out of cheese again; can you stop by the store and pick some up?” their spouse will ask. “Gee whiz, didn’t we just buy a pound of cheese last week?”

And just think. Someday in the not-too-distant future, you could be stranded at a crowded airport over a holiday because your plane’s rat brain is down. I’ll bet all my future cheese-derived income that this is a scenario that Orville and Wilbur never envisioned.

Welcome to a brave new world.

Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site, this is a news story written by me that originally appeared on the now-defunct Electronic News’ website, which is long gone. It’s former sister pub Electronic Design News (EDN) currently holds the copyright to all Electronic News copy (to the best of my knowledge). You can still see a copy of this story at EDN.

Editor’s Note Part the Second: Here’s more rat-brain-neural-network-piloting coverage from Discovery.

Alas! Poor Margin! I Knew Him, Horatio

Inventory correction or cyclical downturn? That is indeed, the question.

Alas, it's not "I knew him well," you morons! It's "I knew him, Horatio."Those of you who familiar with me know I have a some-time affinity for borrowing from the Bard — that’s William Shakespeare, for all you techie left-brained types — for this editorial space. So I can’t help but suggest that the chip industry is headed for the winter of its discontent.

Of course, it really depends on whom you ask. Wall Street seems to be divided on the issue as to whether current market conditions are a correction or a downturn, even as many companies and executives swear to the former. And regardless of which it turns out to be, it appears as if the equipment and materials suppliers are once again going to prove fortune’s fools.

Of course as an observer of the chip industry, it’s easy to point out that this is hardly a new situation or business climate. It engenders all of a writer’s favorite cliché’s: the more things change, yada yada yada; those who don’t learn from history, blab blah blah, etc., etc. So I’ll skip the pontificating rhetoric and do my humble best to cut to the chase.

I think it’s too early to call it for sure, but before you accuse of me wimping out, there is evidence that this is indeed an inventory correction. But it may prove to be a painful one for some.

Aside from all the wishful thinking and public statements meant to appease investors and boards of directors, there is some heartening evidence. Graphics chipmaker ATI Technologies, for one, surprised Wall Street, and probably just about everyone else, with its strong quarter, in the midst of what has become a daily stream of downward guidance and preannouncements for calendar Q3, and, shall we say, reluctant, guidance for Q4.

Part of ATI’s good fortunes could be attributable to market share gains, but certainly not all it. So all those graphics chips must be going somewhere. The same could be said of Advanced Micro Devices. It managed to put in a solid quarter as well despite a drop in its flash business; the jump came from growth in processor sales across all of its markets.

Alas, Electronic News, we hardly knew ye: RIP.Now one could argue that market conditions just haven’t caught up with the likes of ATI and AMD. That might be true. Or maybe its just companies that begin with the letter A.

In any event, regardless of whether this is a downturn or a correction, you know there are a lot of chips floating in the channel when your flash business goes down.

But beyond the chip industry, the electronics industry doesn’t seem to be taking the hit that the chip industry has this past quarter. Orders and shipments of printed circuit boards remained in a healthy state as we headed into the final month of calendar Q3. The numbers for North American suppliers would seem to reflect a normal seasonal slowdown, but nothing like what seems to be happening farther up the food chain in the semiconductor biosphere.

This would indeed suggest that what’s happening now is an inventory correction, and the view that the upturn still has legs may indeed be right. A dash of market milk of magnesia and the order digestion will be over.

How Poor Are They That Have Not Patience!

But even if this inventory correction scenario is true, it would seem that Banquo’s ghost will still haunt the equipment and materials suppliers’ party for some quarters to come. As market researchers VLSI Research and Gartner Inc. have been pointing out for sometime now, the industry has once again ramped up a lot of capacity over the past 18 months. A LOT. So much so that VLSI warned months ago that the industry may be overheating.

In fact, Gartner just updated its forecast for equipment spending, noting that 2004 is one of the best years on record, even slightly surpassing the high end of its guidance back in July at Semicon West. But what goes up must come down; while capital equipment spending is on pace to grow 66 percent this year, the market researcher expects equipment spending to decline by 0.6 percent next year, followed by a 16.1 percent decline in 2006.

As Gartner semi equipment analyst Dean Freeman suggested to me, there seem to be two possible scenarios. On one hand, we will have zero growth through 2005 as the industry ramped capacity quickly and now can add it only as needed to meet demand. But the industry will likely move into overcapacity by the end of 2005, simply because it is just plain difficult to manage demand cycles, Freeman observed. History certainly bears that out.

It is also possible that some chipmakers booked early in order to insure order slots and now are pushing them out until they need them, Freeman added. Golly gee whiz, imagine that. That surely has never happened before, huh?

On the other hand, growth could be slowing as a result of slackening demand in the wake of macroeconomic forces, Freeman said. The market has been able to respond quickly and therefore, equipment order push outs. Demand will return as consumer confidence improves after the election and oil prices drop from $50 a barrel to a more reasonable $40 to $45 per barrel, thus freeing up discretionary income. 2005 and 2006 are then slow, with stronger growth rebounding in 2007, he theorized.

Of course, if you’re as cynical as I am, you suspect oil prices will drop before the election, but that’s another topic altogether.

In any event, be it downturn, correction, whatever label you want to ascribe to it, equipment and materials suppliers are likely to have a tough time of it, at least for the next several quarters or so.

Chasseriau's interpretation of Shakespeare's witches in Macbeth.So if you make process or test equipment, or supply materials, I would suggest trying the following process recipe to conjure up the ghost of early 2000:

“Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg, and howlet’s wing,–
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.”

But I should warn you that this might prove a yield bomber; I don’t know how well a plasma-induced cleaning process removes newt eyes and such from the inside of a process chamber.

Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site, this is a news story written by me that originally appeared on the now-defunct Electronic News’ website, which is long gone. It’s former sister pub Electronic Design News (EDN) currently holds the copyright to all Electronic News copy (to the best of my knowledge). You can still see a copy of this story at EDN.

Blasphemy Runs Over Dogma

Alas, Electronic News, we hardly knew ye: RIP.As if people didn’t have enough to worry about these days — terrorism, war, toilet-bound economies, mystery respiratory viruses, and the incomprehensible success of reality television — people are worried about Moore’s Law, too.

There’s no quicker way to get people’s knickers in a twist here in Sillycon Valley than to intimate that Moore’s Law may get repealed in the near future. To add insult to that injury, just suggest that willingly adhering to the scaling suggested by Moore’s Law in this day and age is just simply a bad idea. It goes over like a lead balloon with the locals. Yet this is just exactly what has begun to happen.

Most notably, perhaps, was Michael Malone’s February essay in the now defunct venture capital magazine Red Herring entitled ‘Forget Moore’s Law’. In that essay he argued adherence to this technological dogma was unhealthy in terms of both business and social impact.

For those of you not familiar with Malone, he is a tech veteran, having covered the chip industry and high tech as a journalist and author for more than two decades. Despite his impressive curriculum vitae, my colleagues in the Fourth Estate almost always identify Malone as a co-founder of dot-com darling eBay. It’s a rather delicious irony, given his recent Silicon Valley blasphemy.

But I digress. Malone was then quoted in a New York Times story in early April along with other Silicon Valley and industry insiders questioning yet again the wisdom of Moore’s Law in today’s economic and social climate.

Now this much trouble hasn’t been stirred up since Benedict Arnold decided he was a Tory. Before I get accused of hyperbole, I will observe that most people in the industry have taken this idea in stride, and many agree with Malone, et al, at least in private. He’s in good company.

But then I’ve also been subjected to and amused by the emotional and indignant reactions of those here and elsewhere within the industry that are aghast that some of Silicon Valley’s own denizens would have the audacity to question the fundamentalist religious doctrine of high tech. I’ve actually heard the word “traitor” come up in conversation.

Then there was one semiconductor market research firm that even described Malone’s words as “what has to be described as heresy.” I’m not making that up; the company devoted an entire research note to the topic.

What’s next? Will we see effigies of Malone burning on the well-manicured lawns of corporate campuses in Santa Clara and north San Jose?

Moohlah is The True Technology Driver

Willam Blake's Blashemer. Jeff Chappell brought culture to the chip industry, if nothing else..But perhaps what makes Moore’s Law such an emotional issue these days in Silicon Valley is that the chip industry is in its worst downturn ever. We’re still waiting for that second half 2001 recovery, and it’s May 2003. People, at least those that are left, are on edge. And some within the industry — not just us muckraking yellow journalists — are beginning to question the wisdom of the two-year technology cycle.

For some time equipment and materials suppliers have been telling me that some of their chipmaking customers are looking at slowing down their business to a three year cycle, while others plan to adhere to the traditional 18 to 24 months. Many suggest that we will see a bifurcation of the industry, with top tier chipmakers adhering to Moore’s Law while second and third tier chipmakers will break it.

But even if this does happen, Moore’s Law still stays on track. It won’t be the end of the world as we know it, at least not anymore so than it is already.

Of course, Moore’s Law and the scaling of ever smaller silicon-based transistors will end someday. I don’t base my logic on the idea that physics will eventually break Moore’s Law; that declaration has been erroneously proclaimed more than once, particularly during the gloom of downturns.

Rather, I’ll just say that nothing lasts forever. But when it does, it’s not like the world is suddenly going to stop using silicon chips. We still use knives even though we have guns and surgical lasers. We still take trains sometimes, even though we have automobiles. We still drive cars, even though we have access to airplanes. We’ll still have a use for silicon chips even when quantum computing or whatever gee whiz stuff does end up succeeding traditional technology at the cutting edge.

Furthermore, it may be a matter of economics and not physics that ultimately constrains the shrinking transistor. And I don’t mean the money in the pockets of the Intels, Infineons and TSMCs of the world, but the pockets of us consumers, which drive the industry in lieu of nonexistent IT spending. How many times have we heard “There’s no market for a 486 processor … a 500Mhz processor … a 1GHz processor …” and so forth? “No one will ever need more than 256Kbytes of RAM … 640Kbytes … 32Mbytes … 128Mbytes …” and so forth? But then it turns out there is, and we do.

Of course if the economy doesn’t improve someday, all bets are off. But, for the time being, as long as people are willing to buy the latest, greatest electronic gizmo, someone is going to figure out the cost effective physics and keep cramming those transistors onto chips, and keep Moore’s Law intact. The semiconductor industry is like a bad Kevin Costner movie in that respect. Build it, and the market will come.

Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site, this is a news story written by me that originally appeared on the now-defunct Electronic News’ website, which is long gone. It’s former sister pub Electronic Design News (EDN) currently holds the copyright to all Electronic News copy (to the best of my knowledge). You can still see a copy of this story at EDN.

Robust Solution Needed

Alas, Electronic News, we hardly knew ye: RIP.Buzzwords. Public relations jargon. Robust, worldwide, revolutionizing time-to-market jargon that the industry can’t seem to avoid and leverages us in the trade press uniquely crazy.

These are the words that make us audibly groan with pain when we see them. These are the words that we joke about around the office and in meetings. These are the words we forbid each other to say when socializing with one another on weekends. If we all worked in Texas Instruments’ marketing department, we would call these words our “key care-abouts.”

These are the words that jack up our time-to-copy and must be swiftly deleted. We writers hate these things. And it’s a robust, industry-leading hate, to be sure.

Thus, with the help of my colleagues, I have developed the Dirty Jargon List, á la George Carlin, comprising words and phrases that should be avoided. We hope this first-to-market jargon list will underscore Electronic News’ commitment to industry-leading copy. At the top of our jargon list is the tired, overworked “solution.” It seems products are no longer just that, but solutions. Everything is a solution, and the people that make solutions are, you guessed it, “solutions providers.” As one Electronic News writer pointed out, this is essentially meaningless. If someone asks me the time and I tell them, I’m a solution provider. Perish the thought.

This man is evil. He uses the term "robust." Correlation? Put “robust” in front of the word solution, and our first instinct is to dive for the paper shredder or the recycling bin.

The next-least popular cliché among editors is “world,” as in world-class or world’s first and the ever popular worldwide leader. Of course, “global” fits in this category as well. When I see “world-class solution,” my first impulse is to reach for a tactical nuclear weapon.

Other words on the jargon list include “unique,” “leverage” and “leading.” And then there are the hackneyed phrases, such as best-of-breed, state-of-the-art, bleeding-edge, cutting-edge, trailing-edge, priced competitively, superior performance and the new cliché on the block, orders of magnitude. Let us not forget the canned quotes that begin “we are pleased” or “we are excited,” or the increasingly prevalent “with the rapid development of.” Then there is the-ahem-solution that “underscores the company’s commitment to the industry.”

Leverage is my personal favorite. Everyone is leveraging something these days, usually solutions. It makes one ponder how the first semiconductor companies ever got started. What did they have to leverage? Vacuum tubes? Stone knives and bear skins? Rocks?

Of course, I don’t expect marketing or public-relations people in the industry to read this and experience an epiphany. More likely, they will e-mail me and say: “Gosh, Jeff, you’re right. Our company will position itself to become the industry leader in cliché-less copy! Our press releases will provide a robust jargon solution that will revolutionize your time-to-copy.”

No, a solution won’t be leveraged easily. It dates back to the dawn of civilization. Here’s an example of a press release from the archaeological record:

“The world’s leading clay tablet company, Babylonian Tablet Corp., is pleased and excited to announce today that it is launching ClayMud®, a new world-class tablet technology. Leveraging the company’s experience in mud-brick technology, Babylonian Tablet has developed a new industry-leading state-of-the art solution that will revolutionize cuneiform writing. By mixing clay from the Euphrates River with mud from the Tigris, Babylonian Tablet has developed a uniquely robust offering for royal scribes. ClayMud® is softer than previous generations of tablet clays, allowing scribes to work more efficiently, while drying in half the time of competing clays, improving royal time-to-market by orders of magnitude lower.”

An issue of Cuneiform Weekly before they changed to an email format.And here’s how it appeared in Cuneiform Weekly:

“Mud-brick and clay tablet maker Babylonian Tablet Corp. (BTC) recently rolled out its new ClayMud material for cuneiform tablets. ClayMud utilizes Euphrates River Clay mixed with Tigris River mud to produce tablet material that BTC claims is softer than previous-generation materials but cuts drying time in half.”

So much for leveraging a robust solution.

Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site, this is a news story written by me that originally appeared on the now-defunct Electronic News’ website, which is long gone. It’s former sister pub Electronic Design News (EDN) currently holds the copyright to all Electronic News copy (to the best of my knowledge). You can still see a copy of this story at EDN.