PALO ALTO, Calif. Once upon a time to present your microprocessor at a major technical conference, you had to clear high hurdles. The paper had to be the first disclosure of the part, you had to provide in-depth technical detail on it and any marketing had to be confined to a slide on your motivation.
Those were the days. Now the cold hand of corporate marketing has a firm grip on the esophagus of the electronics industry, controlling what gets said, when it gets said and in what key it is vocalized.
Blame the economics. The microprocessor sector has collapsed into a handful of companies and a few well funded startups that can afford major silicon design work. Competition between them is seen by C-level officers as too stiff to risk giving away any trade secrets in the interests of educating—or showing off in front of—an audience of top engineers.
So it should come as no surprise that even my half day at the annual Hot Chips conference included several presentations that were largely marketing pitches for devices launched months ago. Altera and Xilinx, take a bow.
The problem isn't limited to Hot Chips. Even the International Solid-State Circuits Conference—there's a name marketing has not gotten its hands on yet—has suffered under the rising power of corporations trying to control their messages. Rarely are ISSCC papers the first disclosure of a major commercial part these days. However, the crew behind the event still keeps a pretty tight rein on any marketing messages, even to the extent of forbidding use of color in most slides.
The engineering ethos still thrives at these events, even in the expanding shadow of the corporation.
There are few places that compare with Hot Chips or ISSCC for meeting in one room some of the smartest engineers in the industry. I shared lunch and coffee breaks under the eucalyptus trees of Stanford with top engineers from Intel, AMD, Nvidia, IBM, Sun Microsystems—and a few startups who didn't even have a corporate name yet to put on their badges.
Marc Tremblay, a former microprocessor architect from Sun Microsystems, made the trek down from Bellevue, Washington and his new gig at Microsoft to stay in touch with this community. I met engineers from Intel's Haifa Israel design center and heard from a few that came in from Tokyo. Not bad given the current corporate clamp down on travel.