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no quicker way to get people’s knickers in a twist here in Sillycon Valley than to intimate that Moore’s Law may get repealed in the near future.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
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.