EE Times caught up with Cypress Semiconductor founder and chief executive officer T.J. Rodgers at the Embedded Systems Conference. Publisher Brian Fuller's interview with Rodgers is excerpted here.
EE Times: What's business like for the next six to 12 months?
T.J. Rodgers: I came from my staffing meeting just before this, and we were worried--we are worried--that 2006 could be a repeat of 2004, with a really nice first half, followed by that sick feeling when the third quarter is weak and you know the phone won't be ringing at Christmas.
Don't take my forecasts for a given, because I'm not that good at it, but our forecasting services say it's going to be a strong year. Business is really good, and the forecast I went over today said that from a macroeconomic and semiconductor-specific point of view, the world's looking good for the rest of the year. And 2007 is supposed to be a barn burner.
EET: Some forecasters are sticking to a 17 to 18 percent forecast for '06. So you're seeing strength across the world?
Rodgers: Yep. You're seeing the static RAM business taking off like a rocket.
EET: There's a lot of concern about the evolution and maturation of the business, from one with high annual growth averages to something more commodity-like, with lower ASPs. Is that the industry's biggest challenge?
Rodgers: I think the forecasters are lagging indicators. I have a Hewlett-Packard 15 calculator, and I can put in percent growth for 2001, do function linear regression and graph any line you'd like, and of course the line perfectly fits the data--right up until the data goes dink, dink, dink, and down like this.
I've seen no fundamental reason to think the semiconductor industry is going to go to a slower growth rate, especially if you define the semiconductor industry in larger terms.
For example, we're now into solar cells. That's a $3 billion per year business, taking .03 percent market share from a $1 trillion electricity business. If you look at that market capability for semiconductors--after all, a solar cell is a glorified diode, literally--there's no end in sight.
EET: There's talk that the next node out, 45 nanometers, is really where Moore's Law is going to hit the wall. We tend to think that about every next node, though. What's your take?
Rodgers: We're putting our 65-nm technology into production right now. We've generally lagged the big guys, who have a lot of money, by something like half a generation, but we've always been there all the way since 1982. I do not see technical barriers preventing Moore's Law from going forward. However, having said that, I do see an end to Moore's Law--and the end of Moore's Law will come in the boardroom, not in the wafer fabrication plant.
The newest stepper for 45 nm-- assuming you guess right and don't buy the wrong one--is $37 million; [it] costs more than a Boeing 737. Think about having three or four of them. You're looking at $150 million.
Ask yourself what you've got to make, and in what volume, [just] to pay for your steppers, let alone all the other equipment. Clayton Christensen [a Harvard Business School professor and authority on disruptive innovation] has talked about technology overshoot. We're in a classic case of technology overshoot, where the ROI is just going to go away. We're not going to do the 45-nm technology on the Moore's Law time frame. There are fewer and fewer companies getting the benefit of Moore's Law as they move up on the technology curve. I think it can be done, but I don't think it matters that much economically any longer.
EET: A few colleges--Stanford, MIT, others--have created interdisciplinary programs to marry electrical engineering and biology. Do you see a coming together of those disciplines in the commercial space anytime soon?
Rodgers: I have two data points. In gene sequencing, once you understand the sequence of genes in an organism, with bioengineering you can go in and change one gene and modify the characteristic of a plant, as opposed to [just doing] a crude DNA swap where you put two plants together. For instance, you can [engineer] a grape that's more drought-tolerant than it was before but still makes great pinot noir.
[The technology needed] to understand the gene sequence--that's going to go to silicon. There are startups in Silicon Valley coming into our company saying they want us to build holes so small that one DNA molecule will fit in them. They want to watch it fluoresce and find out what it is. And they want millions of chips.
On the nanotechnology front, I'll tell a story about my car. I bought a car, and I wanted to protect it. So I remembered from high school a thing called Turtle Wax that you use to prevent oxidation of the paint. I went to the hardware store and bought a a $10 bottle of Turtle Wax, and the bottle said, "Now improved with nantotechnology." There are more con men and charlatans in the nanotech world than I've ever seen before [anywhere else].
EET: Let's talk about an area where you're trying to get some momentum, as are others: programmable silicon.
Rodgers: When I listened to [Altera Corp. chairman and CEO] John Daane talk about programmability at this meeting [ESC] last year, he had it about right. As line widths go down, even a 65-nm wafer is expensive. [But] you can cram so much stuff on a wafer, you can afford to be inefficient in terms of transistors per square millimeter. Instead of designing 10 chips for 10 customers, if you can design one chip that can be programmed for 10 customers, you can amortize a typical programmable chip, [for which] development is around $20 million. It's the way we're going to go.
I think programmability is the future. And once you get to programmability, software is king.
EET: If you ran for office--say, governor of California--what would be your first piece of legislation?
Rodgers: Let me reject the premise of your question. I have a real job, I create real wealth, real people work for our company. I would never, ever swap my job for a job where I make my living taking money from other people. I would rather be unemployed, literally.
EET: What's your favorite swear word?
Rodgers: Depends on how pissed off I am. It would be offensive to Christians because it's a concatenation of a bunch of swear words that all go together, and it's pretty ugly when it comes out. Let me just leave it at that description.