SAN FRANCISCO — Henry Samueli spun my head around so fast I thought it would snap off. He explained why the worst possible thing that could happen to the electronics industry might be a good thing for Broadcom, the company he co-founded.
Moore's Law is slowing down, and its end appears to be in sight, he said. No surprise. Back in May he became the first semiconductor executive I ever heard frankly acknowledge this increasing apparent reality. Then he added a new head-snapping twist:
From our perspective [this situation] gives us more breathing room to be clever about design. Most people run to the current process node as fast as they can. That's going to change. Instead of running to the next node, you will come up with new architectures and circuit designs, and that will create more opportunities on the design side, bringing more value to a company like Broadcom.
Laughing, I asked, "So Moore's Law is ending... and that's a good thing for Broadcom?"
We both laughed. "Yes, in a way it is," he said.
While Samueli argues Broadcom could expand its slice, the overall pie will slow its pace of growth, a prospect that quickly sobered up our conversation.
There will be a slowdown in rate of innovation in products [end users] buy. The smaller/cheaper/faster [dynamic] is definitely going to slow and potentially 15 years from now even stop -- then it's a matter of leveraging the system as a whole rather than the end product.
Samueli is not alone in speaking frankly about this trend. In a keynote at the International Electron Devices Meeting (IEDM), one of the top gatherings on the future of semiconductors, Geoffrey Yeap, vice president of technology at Qualcomm, painted a similar picture.
Chipmakers face "more material/process cost and design complexity... to meet product specifications for low leakage/power and higher performance," he wrote in a paper for the IEDM proceedings.
"This positive feedback loop drastically accelerates the increase in die cost ($/mm2)... making area scaling less attractive," Yeap wrote. "We are getting dangerously close to this inflection point as the scaling box with four sides of speed, density, power, and cost is becoming smaller as we march towards the 7 nm node."
Engineers are researching several areas in hopes of countering or at least slowing down the trend. They include new backend materials and processes, multiple 3D chip stacking efforts, and industry collaboration on extreme ultraviolet lithography, 450mm wafers, and design optimizations of all sorts, Yeap wrote.