Moore’s Law is golden

The lead-up to the 50th anniversary of Moore’s Law resulted in a deluge of news stories, reminiscences and analysis. Was that necessary or even appropriate?

Actually, yes, especially as you realize the broad influence of technology on private and public sector organizations and individuals in virtually every corner of the globe.  

As background, let’s consider what Moore’s Law both is and isn’t. The phrase resulted from an article Intel founder Gordon Moore wrote for the thirty-fifth anniversary issue of Electronics magazine (published on April 19, 1965) in which he observed that the complexity (number of transistors) of dense integrated circuits had doubled annually since their introduction in the early 1960s, and was likely to continue for at least a decade. In 1975, Moore revised his observation, noting that annual exponential circuit growth would continue until 1980, then would proceed at a two year pace. [Disclosure: Pund-IT has a consulting relationship with Intel.]

Despite rumors and misstatements, often by Intel competitors, Moore never claimed that the progress he observed would continue forever. In 2005 he told an interviewer that, "in terms of size (of transistors) you can see that we're approaching the size of atoms which is a fundamental barrier,” and postulated that traditional semiconductor processes would be viable “for 10-20 more years.” In March 2015, in a special interview with IEEE Spectrum, Moore noted that, “"I see Moore’s Law dying here in the next decade or so."

Moore’s second law

But while most recent attention has focused on Moore’s original observation, far less has been paid to his second law (also called Rock’s Law, after Arthur Rock, an investor who supported the eight engineers, including Moore, who left the Shockley Semiconductor Lab to become the founding R&D staff at Fairchild Semiconductor). Moore’s second law regards the economics of technological innovation, postulating that the cost of building next generation semiconductor chip fabrication plants doubles every four years.

That progression has slowed somewhat; in 2003, a new chip fab cost about $3B to construct and in 2011 Intel budgeted $5B for its new Fab 42 factory. But though the company built Fab 42, it chose to reserve the facility for future use and retrofitted two other fabs for production of its latest 14nm microprocessors. This parsing of economic minutiae may seem unnecessary but it is critical to understanding Intel’s current position, and future outlook and opportunities.

Final Analysis

The technology industry is so singularly focused on pursuing and enabling the “new” that companies which have been around for a decade or more typically qualify as old hands. Organizations and/or technologies that hit the half century market are few and far between -- the fiftieth anniversaries of the hard disk drive (2006) and the IBM mainframe (2014) are the only products that immediately come to mind.

But it’s difficult to think of a similarly long-lived concept whose influence has been as broad as Moore’s Law. Over time, Moore’s thoughts on the exponential improvement of technology evolved from a simple observation into a promise that businesses, investors and consumers continue to bank on. As such, Moore’s Law has become a kind of shorthand for the benefits computing devices have both steadily delivered and continue to promise.

As a result, Moore’s company became synonymous with computational quality and consistency. “Intel Inside” was the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for Silicon Valley, but where the company goes from here is not entirely certain. Moore’s Law is nearing fundamental barriers, and his second law is likely to become a larger obstacle as silicon processes drop below 10nm. But if the past is any measure, the golden anniversary of Moore’s Law is casting a distinctive, likely valuable reflection on Intel’s future.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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