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Is Nanotechnology a Wellspring of Innovation or a Blind Alley?

It’s that time of the year when everyone recaps what occurred during the current year and looks forward to possible developments and trends for the coming year. Dr. Wally Rhines, CEO of Mentor Graphics and industry luminary,  posted an article in EETimes on 11/28/12 looking at previous advances in the semiconductor industry and how, if these trends continue, they might impact our industry looking 40 years out in time. Dr. Rhines brought some amazing metrics to light:

We Are All Fitness Fanatics

For most of 2012 Semico has focused on how new data is driving the consumer industry.  This isn’t just for servers or cloud storage, but also for smart phones, tablets, etc.  New ways of interacting with our devices, like augmented reality, are becoming increasingly more available to the average consumer, and our current phones are more powerful than most computers were just a few years ago.

With all this advanced technology surrounding us, its no wonder that we’re moving back to the basics… of a sort.  Self improvement is the next driving force behind innovation, and we’re already seeing some quite popular products hitting the market.  All of these new self improvement products are really just new display options for infographics, enabling us to personalize our obsession with data.

Of course, the new fitness craze isn’t just for people looking to improve our health care.  We’re gravitating toward fitness products so we can understand our bodies and how the environment affects us.  There are a million and one questions that data mining our every day lives can answer.

Offensive Innovation versus Defensive

As the world continues to fancy smart phones and tablets the notebook market appears to be falling into limbo. Many people believe that smart phones and tablets are the only future for computing devices and that the notebook is a dying product even with its new make-up, i.e. Ultrabook or ultraportable.

At the beginning of 2012 there was much excitement around the introduction of a new form factor called Ultrabook married with Windows 8. At Semico we were also excited about this new platform and expected computer manufacturers to take the general guidelines set forth by Intel and innovate off of them to create an exciting new computing platform. As the year progressed, Windows 8 was delayed and innovation in the design and implementation of the ultraportable lacked creative and critical thinking by designers.

PC manufacturers have taken a defensive posture trying to protect their market share and pricing structure of the computing market versus taking an offensive approach by offering innovative designs. It appears that most computer manufacturers lack the understanding of the consumer and how their usage model has changed as a result of smartphones and tablets. PC manufacturers have taken some of the smartphone and tablet innovations but are only incorporating them in bits and pieces and not embracing them in their totality. We believe this is a major mistake and one reason why we see a slower adoption rate for these new platforms.

Akustica High Definition MEMS Microphones Aimed at Smartphones

On November 28, 2012 Akustica announced a new family of high definition (HD) MEMS microphones.  There are 4 versions with two analog and two digital and a top and bottom port for each.  The company touts the new microphone family’s high signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) of 63 dB, super wideband frequency response, and tightly matched +/- 2dB sensitivity. Akustica’s HD MEMS microphones are drop in replacements for most of the commonly used MEMS microphones.  The company is offering a wide audio range up to 7KHz when transmitting, but it can record with a wider range of 14KHz.  A key point is that Akustica offers top port versions.  This is a new packaging technology from Akustica.  Other top port microphones have lower performance than a bottom port microphone.  Akustica’s top port has the same performance as the bottom port version.  A bottom port microphone requires a hole in the PCB or flex circuit for mounting to the case.  A top port mounts on the other side of a board and is directly against the case.  According to Akustica customers are willing to pay a premium for a top port microphone if it can offer this level of performance.

The Pessimist Mystique?

Do periods of economic downturn create more pessimists, or do they just get more attention during tough times?  Economists and politicians love to alarm us into believing economic growth is now on a slippery slope to permanently low levels.  Everything has already been invented, baby boomers are on the decline, and productivity will never experience the kind of improvements that were seen in the 1950s.  Robert J. Gordon, Professor of Social Science at Northwestern University wrote a paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) in August 2012 in advance of his book release Beyond the Rainbow: The American Standard of Living Since the Civil War.  He points out that the computer and Internet revolution has resulted in a much smaller economic impact than that of the combustion engine.  He then argues that future innovations will have a diminishing effect on economic growth because of six headwinds1.

ARM Reaching Into Server Market

ARM has become the dominant architecture in portable products.  The server market is not as large as smartphones and other portable consumer electronics in terms of unit volumes but   is growing at a fast rate.  While the volumes are relatively low, the processors in the server market carry a high price tag, in the hundreds of dollars.  Intel dominates the server market with Xeon.  This is Intel’s fastest growing product line and it has its highest gross margins.

ARM and its partners have been eyeing the server market for several years.  Expanding into servers results in a new revenue source.  The main thrust for using ARM technology in servers is the lower power consumption the architecture offers versus the x86.  It may require a multi-core and multi-socket solution to compete with Intel on performance.  Yet the ARM camp touts that it can still achieve a lower power profile, occupy less space and do this at a lower cost.

Currently, ARM is a 32-bit architecture while x86 is 64-bit.  A year ago (October 2011) ARM announced a 64-bit V8 ISA.  The chip vendors for ARM server class CPUs are Applied Micro Circuits Corp. (AMCC), Marvell, and Calxeda.  Currently, Marvell and Calxeda are supplying 32-bit ARM CPUs for servers.  AMCC has an architecture license.

Except for Work, Is the PC Age Over?

It may be tempting to say that the current shift in user trends for consumer devices is limited to a generational shift, but in reality, it's affecting our grandparents and parents as well as our children.

The shift is crossing platforms from gamers to casual users and business clients, and it's changing the types of services we purchase for our homes and how we assign value to products.

This is the shift away from the computing segment to the consumer segment. As a society we are leaving our desktops and notebooks behind and moving to smartphones and tablets. But we're not going to be a society of just smartphones and tablets, no. We're going to be a society of smartphones, tablets, and SmartTVs.

How many people do you know who have already stopped using their desktop? Do you still use your laptop for anything other than business?

The first move in this shift was when we all moved from landlines to the cellular network. During the last five years or so, many people have been abandoning their TV services and switching to cable or DSL. How many people now watch their favorite shows on services like Hulu or Netflix or Amazon Prime?

NAND Pushes Wafer Demand to 11.7% Growth by 2016

SEMI recently released their silicon shipment forecast for 2012-2014.  Total wafer shipments are expected to reach record levels in 2013 and 2014.  Semico’s Wafer Demand model concurs with their forecast.  Wafer demand is expected to grow at a compound annual rate of 11.7% over the next five years.

The wafer demand pie keeps getting bigger but all the pieces are not growing at the same rate.  The pie looks a lot different than it did 15 years ago or even 10 years ago.   The chart below presents a few of the product categories that have traditionally utilized the most advanced technologies.

Figure:  Wafer Demand by Product as a Percent of the Total Wafer Demand

Source: Semico Wafer Demand Model Sept. 2012

Wafer demand for microprocessors has grown 65% over the past 10 years, but, as a percent of the total, MPU remains at less than 3% of the total industry wafers.  To a certain extent, this is due to the production efficiencies and improved designs that the MPU manufacturers have implemented.

Future of Sensor Fusion in Computing

Intel presented new capabilities for portable computing that are enabled by sensor Fusion at IDF 2012.  Sensor fusion has been associated mostly with smartphones.  Semico wrote an article discussing sensor fusion in a recent issue of the Semico IPI Report, August 2012.

Sensor fusion is not only the integration of more than one sensor but also the fusion of the data in order to use it for applications and enhance the user experience.  Sensors are defined as having a number of axes, also known as a degree of freedom (DoF).  Accelerometers can have up to 3 axes for the XYZ coordinate space.  A gyro measures the spin or rotation on each of the XYZ axes.  A magnetometer senses the magnetic angular rate and gravity (MARG) for each of the XYZ axes.  A magnetometer and accelerometer work together to achieve an eCompass function.  These sensors provide data from which direction and speed can be determined. The key application for sensor fusion is navigation and location based services (LBS).

As noted previously, more features are coming to the ultrabook which will require sensors.  Intel had technical sessions on sensors.  Windows 8 requires a minimum of 9 DoF.  Microsoft’s development program is Windows 8 Desktop.  This enables application developers to work with touch and sensors for tablet PCs and ultrabook PCs.  Microsoft offers a Windows Sensor Framework.  The Microsoft API allows developers to uniformly access sensors across platforms.

Intel Developers Forum

Intel kicked off its annual Intel’s Developers Forum (IDF) talking about reinventing computing.  This involves collaboration to shape the future from datacenters to devices.  In prior years Intel emphasized heavily its lineup of processors, manufacturing technology and focused on consumer products.  These things were of course presented this year and ultrabooks are an important innovation that Intel is promoting.  The next generation Core CPU, Haswell, is also highly anticipated.  Nevertheless, the datacenters and cloud services played a bigger role this year.

Datacenters with servers, communications infrastructures, cloud services and security are just not sexy enough for the general public.  However, the continued growth of smartphones, tablets and personal computing is dependent on the build out and continuing innovations of datacenters to support these devices.  Security throughout this ecosystem is being addressed by Intel and was discussed in detail.

The data centers are an important business for Intel.  As noted in its most recent financial statements it is the company’s fastest growing segment and best profit margin.