SAN FRANCISCO – It was a heady week hanging out the Intel Developer Forum and covering the iPhone 5 launch a block away. At the end of it all, I am both impressed and worried about the two big electronics ecosystems that passed within spitting distance of each other.
Riding the big escalators at Moscone West I saw Dave Ditzel. He designed a couple generations of Sparc chips at Sun Microsystems back in the day and now is working for Intel on a CPU beyond anything the PC giant is talking about publicly.
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Dave said he was impressed by Intel’s long, deep pipeline of microprocessor projects and its methodical process for executing on such massively complex programs. Me, too.
While we talked, the chief technologist of Invensas, who also knew Dave, chimed in, excitedly sharing a prototype in his pocket of the company’s latest 3-D stacking technology. For a moment I felt like I was standing at Ground Zero of the future of chip design.
I had that feeling again listening to Mark Bohr present Intel’s process technology road map. Bohr’s been around the chip fabrication business for 30 years and unarguably is one of maybe a dozen people now at its vanguard. He talked with authority not only about Intel’s next generation 14-nm process but the 10-nm one beyond. The whole electronics industry depends on pathfinders like him.
Still, there’s an iceberg field ahead of the big Intel cruise ship. The lithography methods used to create chips seem to be running out of gas as we approach the atomic limits of scaling. Even Intel may not be able to stay much longer on its heady two-year cadence for new processes.
Then there’s the whole mobile thing. Yes, Intel’s Atom-based SoCs now power six run-of-the-mill smartphones and four compelling Windows 8 tablets. But Apple’s iPhone franchise (and the Android fleet led by Samsung) is steaming half an ocean ahead of it.