Moore's Law created a stable era for technology, and now that era is nearing its end. But it may be a blessing to say goodbye to a rule that has driven the semiconductor industry since the 1960s.
Imagine if farmers could go year to year knowing in advance the amount of rainfall they would get. They could plant crops based on expected water availability.
That's the world that device makers, who are gathering this week in Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), have long been living in, and every year has been a good one. Droughts haven't been part of the forecast, yet.
The tech industry has been able to develop products knowing the future of processing power, meaning device makers could draw up product road maps based on microprocessor performance gains that could be reliably anticipated.
In sum, the technology industry has been coasting along on steady, predictable performance gains.
But stability and predictability are also the ingredients of complacency and inertia. At this stage, Moore's Law may be more analogous to golden handcuffs than to innovation.
Technology innovation, particularly in the past decade, has been "a succession of entertainment and communication devices that do the same things as we could do before, but now in smaller and more convenient packages," wrote Robert Gordon, an economist, in a recent paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research that addressed the question of whether U.S. economic growth is over.
Moore's Law, first described by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965, states that the number of transistors on a chip would double approximately every two years. But the law was never meant to hold true indefinitely, and today microprocessors are reaching a point where they can shrink no more.
The 14-nanometer silicon chips that are now heading to mobile phones and elsewhere may eventually reach 7nm or even 5nm, but that may be it.
When the European Commission looked at the changing landscape in high-performance computing and the coming end of Moore's Law, it saw opportunity. No longer will "mere extrapolation" of existing technologies provide what is needed, but, instead, there will be a need for "radical innovation in many computing technologies," it said in a report this year.
And in a recent budget request, the U.S. National Science Foundation said that radical innovation beyond Moore's Law will require "new scientific, mathematical, engineering, and conceptual frameworks."
The NSF sees a need for new materials that can work in quantum states, or even "molecular-based approaches including biologically inspired systems."
That new technology could be carbon digital circuits made of nanotubes, which could perform 10 times better than today's technologies, as rated by metric that considers both performance and energy usage. A nanotube is a rolled-up sheet of graphene.
Another emerging technology that may replace or more likely augment microprocessors is quantum computing, something both NASA and the NSA are working on, as are most other major nations.
The end of Moore's Law was a topic of discussion at the recent SC13 supercomputing conference. Experts see instability and much uncertainty ahead now that the technology we rely on today can no longer be expected to improve at a regular, predictable pace.
Marc Snir, director of the Mathematics and Computer Science Division at the Argonne National Laboratory, and a computer science professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told SC13 attendees (see slides) that alternate technologies are not yet ready.
Christopher Willard, chief research officer at Intersect360 Research, said that the era of buying commercial off-the-shelf products to assemble a high-performance system is coming to an end. "The market should then be entering a new phase of experimentation, and computer architecture innovations," he said.
The demise of Moore's Law is already evident in the high-performance computing world.
If Moore's Law continued to hold true, the U.S. would have an exascale system in 2018, instead of the early 2020s, as now predicted.
A 1 gigaflop system was developed in 1988 and nine years later work was completed on a 1 teraflop system. In 2008, work on a 1 petaflop system was finished. A petaflop is a thousand teraflops, or one quadrillion floating-point operations per second.
The end of Moore's Law isn't as urgent of a concern for the device makers at CES as it is for supercomputing researchers.
But there is a shift in themes at CES -- the focus has moved away from smaller, faster, better gadgets to the Internet of Things. The underlying message is: True computing power is measured by the ability of a mobile platform to control and track a multitude of physical and virtual objects over a network. But that message might work for just so long.
The problem that high-performance computing faces in reaching exascale will also eventually confront the device makers at CES, which was launched in 1967, two years after Gordon Moore delivered the paper outlining Moore's Law.
The problem the device makers at CES face is that Moore's Law ends for everyone.
Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His email address is email@example.com.