During the recent Embedded Systems Conference, it occurred to me that twice in as many days I'd heard offhand remarks that slammed home the long-discussed prospect of silicon's irrelevance. As the iPhone showed, good software on a solid, but not necessarily top-end, hardware platform is where differentiation really takes place.
Two months prior, at the Texas Instruments Developer Conference, TI fellow Gene Frantz had spent a lot of time mulling where the company's intellectual property really resides. Is it in the chips, or in the ideas that surround them and are embedded within them?
The point was that ICs themselves don't really constitute the crown jewels anymore--and maybe never did.
Fast forward to the main ESC keynote, where Nick Tredennick, technology analyst for Gilder Publishing, casually remarked that no additional transistors need be embedded in chips. ICs already have enough horsepower.
I'm pretty sure he didn't mean it literally; it's like the infamous "Who needs more than 640k of RAM?" question of long ago. More processing power in a smaller space will always be needed. What I believe Tredennick meant was that we're at a point where the focus is shifting from horsepower to horse smarts--making better use of the underlying capability via better software.
Earlier that day on the show floor, I was visiting with Avnet, now expert at taking good chips from different companies and getting them together on even better application-oriented boards. The latest examples include the combining of TI's DaVinci processor with a Xilinx FPGA for video processing and driving an LCD, and the combination of an ADI Blackfin with a Xilinx CPLD for a networked security camera. Both are examples of how Avnet is easing much of the development pain for system designers.
I asked Marc Gsand, vice president of marketing at Avnet, to identify the biggest problem designers face, now that his company is solving their chip connectivity problems. His answer? The software, of course.
More specifically, designers are looking to take fuller advantage of chips' capabilities. And if taking advantage of a chip's current capabilities is a problem, then surely the drive toward ever more powerful chips loses some of its urgency.
Maybe comparing the situation to the telecom crash of 2001--when there was overcapacity--would be a bit of a stretch, but the industry is at an interesting point: Is there "enough" horsepower out there already, and how can software be pushed to take advantage of current capabilities?
I'd be interested in hearing your answers. E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Patrick Mannion, editor in chief of TechOnline.com.
Member feedback (see more in "Discuss this article" section at bottom):
The question of silicon outpacing the needs of SW could be turned around, of course. Instead, perhaps the framing of the issue should be about SW capability not keeping up with silicon. I think Bill Schweber's recent commentary (EE Times 4/7/08: Opinion: Time for another AI reality check) was spot on. If we had the equivalent hardware processing power of a human brain in hand, it's not clear that anyone could program it. Perhaps it's time to think about a paradigm shift in system architectures.
I think it's the idea embedded within the product that makes the difference. Hardware and software merely enable an idea to be implemented into a product. Let's be clear that the more powerful the hardware is, the more interesting a product can be built upon it. But it's not the factor that makes the product a winner. It's the idea, the creativity, the vision behind the product. Iphone is a good example.
Neither hardware or software is top-end but the system that embodies the elegant, innovative and user friendly interface is. My belief is that the current state of hardware can enable a much wider range of innovative products than currently available.
Instead of focusing on pushing the megahertz, or the number of cores you can put on a chip, I think engineers should be more creative in using the currently available hardware and software to develop winning products. This is where the art comes in and stands side by side with the science. Similar to an artist that uses a few simple brushes and canvas to create a master piece, engineers can and should be doing the same thing.
Since I was around when that "who needs more than 640k" comment was made, I've seen software trail silicon for decades. Every once in a while someone stitches together an interesting interface based upon some standard parts. I seem to recall that the original Mac wasn't based on anything earth shattering either. Comments like Tredennick's seem to forget that its those little building blocks that allow software designers to do what they do - years after they were leading edge. Guess that just means the software world is slow to adapt.
Cranbury Capital LLC
I think the main thing now is to reduce power dissipation (energy usage), rather than cranking up the horsepower. Particularly in industrial, automotive and military applications. Not just from a battery life standpoint, but from a heat dissipation perspective. Fans and heatsinks are not an option for everyone.
Senior Principal Engineer
Hello Patrick, here's a quote from your recent EETimes article: "Fast forward to the main ESC keynote, where Nick Tredennick, technology analyst for Gilder Publishing, casually remarked that no additional transistors need be embedded in chips. ICs already have enough horsepower."
That's not exactly what I meant to say. In fairness to all, I was given five minutes, with the objective: "look back twenty years and look forward twenty years" That's a tall objective for a five-minute talk. What I intended to say (and thought I did say) was that transistors are good enough, not that applications don't need more of them (though I might agree with this point too). I've attached the notes pages from a couple of pages in a PowerPoint presentation. The slides, I hope, illustrate the concept of the value PC and of the value transistor. (The rest of the presentation surrounding the attached slides can be found here: http://www.tredennick.com/ftp/pub/documents/Presentations/. I have also written a couple of newsletters on the topic of value transistors and the value PC and would be happy to send them to you.)
The introduction of the microprocessor stalled innovation in logic design; the industry came to depend on smaller, faster transistors for its progress. Today's transistors are small enough and fast enough for most applications, so it's time to bring back logic innovation (perhaps in the form of reconfigurable systems) as a means to further progress.
Hi Patrick, interesting article and observations about the embedded industry going forward. I think company's investments are becoming higher and higher in software because of the fundamental difference creating at the user interface level as done by iPhone or any Apple device. Company's also wants to use the chips they have on their devices to their fullest potential to reduce the overall cost. If additional chips are ready to provide better usability such as 3D graphics used by iPhone (nobody in mobile phone might have tried previously) companies are ready to use the extra silicon. Everything on the earth can't be performed by under stuffed silicon with great software. A better software can improve things similarly a better silicon can also improve things.
Finally, Silicon and Software needs to go hand in hand to fulfill each others capabilities at fullest potential and provide a critical differentiation to end customers. For example having Pentium IV in might have not been useful if people are still working with MS-DOS operating system. Similarly 80286 might have not sufficient to run WindowsXP. Regards,