There's a changing of the guard about to take place at the world's largest electronics company, and even its top executives don't know where its leading.
That’s my dim reading of a statement today from Kwon Oh-hyun, who will retire in March as chief executive of Samsung Electronics after 32 years with the company.
Kwon was expected to become part of the Samsung Group leadership after his boss, Jay Y. Lee, was given in late August the minimum sentence of five years in prison by a South Korean court for his role in a bribery scandal involving former South Korea president Park Geun-hye.
The conviction of Lee and four other Samsung executives was seen as a watershed for the country’s techno-political climate long dominated by large conglomerates. Rather than step into the vacuum, Kwon said the time had come to “start anew with new spirit and young leadership,” in a statement quoted by Reuters.
“We are fortunately making record earnings right now, but this is the fruit of past decisions and investments; we are not able to even get close to finding new growth engines by reading future trends right now,” he added.
That’s a pretty scary thought from a company that became the world’s largest semiconductor supplier in July, largely due to a shortage and spiking prices of memory chips.
It’s not like the Korean giant lacks an ability to see what’s coming in electronics technology. Samsung said in May it is making plans to produce 4nm chips in 2020, a feat that will probably require a fundamentally new transistor design.
I assume the “new growth engines” Samsung’s top executives have not been able to identify yet are those that lie beyond today’s DRAMs and NAND flash chips. Indeed, the electronics industry stands next to Kwon, unable to see a horizon beyond CMOS scaling which is approaching atomic limits.
Like Samsung, the electronics industry stands at a heady moment. In 20+ years covering this industry, I have never seen so much development across so many different sectors moving with such complexity and speed.
Many of the engineers-turned-CEOs who brought us the microprocessor, the DRAM and so much more are like Kwon making room for a new generation. The good news is there is plenty of talent and potential out there.
It’s impossible to tell where a new generation of leaders will take Samsung. Perhaps Korea’s conglomerates will break apart and reform themselves over many painful iterations, playing out scenarios we have been watching in Japan for more than a decade.
A flow of young engineers are coming up in China, hungry to build on the still-wet foundations of that country’s electronics industry. Whatever the geography, tomorrow’s engineers face challenges grappling with the physics of electrons which seem to be approaching their nano and tera limits.
Like Samsung, we are all stepping bravely into the dark.
— Rick Merritt, Silicon Valley Bureau Chief, EE Times