By Jeffrey Eversmann
After two years of doom and gloom, it’s refreshing to attend an industry event and hear talk of innovation—at all levels. That was the atmosphere at a recent GSA Silicon Series luncheon I attended in Austin, Texas, that featured a panel discussion on blurring technology lines.
At the application-segment level, Patrick Moorhead, marketing vice president with AMD, joked:
“I’ve been hearing that the desktop market is dying for the past 15 years.”
He made that quip after holding up the “4th screen” examples he had brought with him: an iPad and a Sony eBook reader. “Only 5-10% of consumers back up their data, so a fixed device will always be in the home,” Moorhead said.
I agree. While I like the professional security that a proliferation of leading-edge microprocessors brings, I am burdened by the yearly upgrade rotation I am now on to keep current the six-plus PCs in my home. All of us in the semiconductor industry have been through multiple iterations of the tablet device, some of them from Apple. As was often said by the panel, “it’s not an either-or these days.”
Fellow panelist Naveed Sherwani, CEO of Open-Silicon, Inc., added “the new form factor will succeed if it is useful.” So, panelists agreed that the iPad is not a desktop (or even laptop) killer. The question is: Will the average consumer add yet another device to the list of electronic gadgets we carry around each day?
The panel shifted to the technology level and wrestled with an intriguing question: Will ARM replace x86 in the desktop or will x86 replace ARM in the SoC market? While some in the audience checked email on their smartphones, Sandeep Shah, director of marketing and applications at Marvell Semiconductor, Inc., and Sherwani tackled the question.
Shah argued that an “ARM architecture licensee can bring together the best of both worlds.” (This is a very interesting perspective in light of Apple’s recent purchase of Intrinsity, which worked with Samsung to develop the ARM Cortex-based A4 processor.)
Shifting processor sands
Sherwani was quick to add that while there really hasn’t been an attempt by x86 to take over SoC design, that doesn’t mean an attempt isn’t brewing:
“In the next three years or so, things will get more competitive and more intense, when x86 is available for SoC development.”
Then it was time to move on to another much-discussed technology challenge, low power design. The panel members pulled out their different battery-powered devices and rattled off the actual vs. published battery life. “What we really need is more disclosure, a ‘truth-in-battery-life’ from silicon providers,” Moorhead said.
Shah, who probably lives power issues on a daily basis, talked about how the different Blackberry models used different chips from Marvell to get different power performance in the system. Marvell focuses on both system-level and gate-level approaches to power management. Sherwani wrapped things up from a design perspective saying “we have just scratched the surface on lower power design.” Maybe what we need is a Moore’s Law for low power design – something that will challenge engineers to do things that today are viewed as impossible.
All in all, the GSA luncheon was a great opportunity to re-connect with fellow semiconductor engineers. We exchanged cards with the same cell phone numbers, but with new company names, new titles, and new addresses. We talked about how tough things have been but how happy we are to be traveling less and spending more time with our families.
It felt like the calm before the innovation storm. I don’t know about you, but I’m here and getting ready for it.