SAN JOSE, Calif. – If historians ever need a specific week to mark the beginning of the mobile era in technology, last week was a good candidate. But I hope they also find somewhere in our recent history strong signs of the birth of a clean tech era, too.
Last week Hewlett-Packard, the largest electronics company in the world, announced it's not sure whether or not it wants to keep its business unit that is the largest PC maker in the world. Google, arguably the most watched tech company on the planet, made its biggest acquisition ever—one of the companies that gave birth to and popularized the cellphone.
Yes, the mobile era is here.
At Hot Chips I asked a veteran graphics processor designer from Nvidia what's his biggest challenge. He said understanding the still-evolving workloads of mobile systems.
It takes three years or more to go from concept to shipping product in the microprocessor world, so these engineers really try to understand what people are doing with their systems and guess what they will be doing in a few years. A lot of processor projects could flounder on the fact there wasn't much of a smartphone and virtually no tablet market three years ago.
These days, the Nvidia engineer said, he needs to think not just about how he will deliver the latest hot (literally) chip for playing PC games. He also needs to think about how he can build a device that can easily be subdivided into a compelling part for handsets and other portables.
I asked a Microsoft Xbox exec at Hot Chips what he thought was the biggest hardware challenge ahead. He said he couldn't talk with a reporter about most of them, but the one he was comfortable sharing was the increasingly heated battle between the ARM and Intel over the future of mainstream systems designs.
Indeed, Intel recently revamped its processor roadmap to better serve mobile systems like tablets. For its part ARM has cranked up an initiative to get into servers, and is expected to support its first 64-bit chips in the generation after its Cortex A15. Meanwhile AMD's chief exec got the axe, reportedly in part because he didn't get the mobile religion fast enough for the company's board.
All around Silicon Valley fortunes are being shaped by the emerging era in which we will carry our primary computer in our pants pocket. I don't think we are quite there yet—my Blackberry is a slooooow and unsatifying Web browser—but we can see this future on the near horizon
In an excellent column, San Jose Mercury News writer Chris O'Brien pegged last week as the death of the PC, coming on the heels of the PC's 30th birthday. I wouldn't go quite that far. There will be a lively PC market for many, many years to come.
Nothing ever dies. On a pass through Silicon Valley recently, IBM's chief executive noted in passing that Big Blue still has a very healthy mainframe business. Some, including Palmisano, may argue the company has lived to be 100 in part because it got out of PCs.
Things do change, and the computer industry has been morphing from a desktop to a mobile era for years. My former boss, Richard Wallace, used to write regularly about the post-PC era and the death of the PC, typically right around the Comdex conference.
Years before O'Brien, Wallace was poking the electronics industry in its soft spots, providing prescient advice. More recently, people like Steve Jobs have started talking about a post-PC era. Of course, Apple execs are also happy on glowing quarterly conference calls to tout the growth of their Mac business, driven in part by sales of their phones and MP3 players.
Yes, there will be a PC business for years, but like me it is slowing with age, doing its best to eke out growth measured in single digits. Meanwhile everybody wants an iPhone or an Android phone, just like they used to salivate for a 386 PC or a color television.
This is not solely the mobile era. This also needs to be the clean tech era if we are to make an even more important historical shift away from limited and environmentally unfriendly fossil fuels.
Someday the mobile era also will be over. I hope it is not replaced by an era where our economy and environment have been ravaged by an electronics industry too focused on the next feel-good gadget.
I think it would be difficult to find much evidence we are in a clean tech era. Few major corporate acquisitions or road map rewrites come to mind as I casually consider the recent past. A lot of words have been said, but not so many actions have been taken or dollars spent.
If we are driven only by consumer satisfaction we may well run off a cliff. If that happens, in 20 years we may be talking about a death much, much sadder than that of the PC.