Linear Technology is a company built on its founders’ undying belief in analog, its mission carried out with equal convictions by hundreds of analog “gurus” working for the company.
Linear doesn’t seem to mind describing itself as “almost a cult-like” company.
Of course, if you have a ticket to attend Linear’s 30th anniversary party, “Linear Rocks,” scheduled this Saturday (Oct. 22nd) at San Jose Convention Center, you already knew that.
Bob Swanson, who co-founded Linear in 1981 with Bob Dobkin, will be preaching the analog faith when he speaks at the event. In a recent interview with EE Times, Swanson tipped off a punch line for his planned speech: “Linear isn’t a company with a few geniuses at the core, surrounded by thousands of ‘helpers.’ This is a company with a few ‘helpers’ like myself and others in the middle, surrounded by hundreds of geniuses.”
Swanson, who passed his CEO torch to Lothar Maier in 2005, still remains as feisty as ever. He is a rare executive who knows how to speak his mind. Swanson didn’t mince words about himself, his company, companies he had formerly worked for and his competitors, when he sat down with EE Times recently at Linear’s headquarters in Milpitas, Calif.
We asked him to reflect on his own career, his 30 years at Linear, and a few big unexpected changes that affected the industry over that span.Surprises
Today, nothing amuses him more than hearing that a big semiconductor company is trying to “reinvent” itself as an analog powerhouse; or when the financial community and media say that “analog is hot.” When Swanson started Linear, what the world was beginning to celebrate wasn’t analog, but the so-called digital revolution. Swanson lost sleep over the future of the analog business, which was under attack by the then prevailing myth that digital technology would smother analog.
Everyone almost bought that story.
For Swanson, analog’s premature burial represents the single biggest change. The spotlight on analog in today’s semiconductor industry gives him both a chuckle and a bit of vindication.
“In 1981, for Dobkin and I, all we knew was analog,” said Swanson.
“In early days, I remember I went to Bob [Dobkin]’s office every day, asking him if this talk about the digital revolution is true. And Bob, every time, assured me that analog would not go away,” said Swanson.
Indeed, in 1981, analog was already a crowded field with as many as 50 players, he explained. “Analog was perceived as ‘existing old technology,’ and everyone said, ‘who needs better analog?’” Swanson noted, “So, after 30 years, the biggest surprise for me was that the digital revolution turned out to be a friend of analog.”
Swanson remembers the time his team did a teardown on one of Hewlett Packard’s lab instruments. DSP was supposed to be its biggest feature.
Inside the HP’s measurement box, it turned out that there was one DSP, compared to 92 analog components.
The second surprise for Swanson was that many in the analog business today have embraced the idea of “high-performance analog.” Swanson said, “That was the marketing term we invented at Linear, when we were developing precision analog and op amps. Swanson said, “We had to ask ourselves what it is that we are after. We identified that we are committed to high-performance analog, and we decided to call it high performance analog.”
Steve Ohr, analyst for analog and Power Semiconductors at Gartner, Technology and Service Provider Research, explained that Linear’s strategy has always been “to stick with standard multi-market building blocks – amplifiers, data converters, power management ICs – but design and build the kinds of parts whose specifications (typically speed, precision and/or low-power consumption) are so finely-tuned that competitors find those specs difficult, if not impossible, to duplicate.”
Its strategy of “skimming the very high-end of the standard analog parts market” has made Linear successful, and it’s “still valid today,” Ohr noted.