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Mobile chip speed wars have to end, Broadcom chairman says

Stephen Lawson | Dec. 9, 2013
Battery life will win out over ongoing performance upgrades, according to Henry Samueli.

IDGNS: Apple is in a better position than Broadcom to pick a speed and stick with it, because you need to serve different OSes.
Samueli: Exactly. We have to serve everybody, and if they have to have a faster processor, we have to have it. So I think we'll still experience a few years of racing to speed, but eventually it will level off and people will decide that battery life is more important.

IDGNS: What about reception? Is there anything you can do to make the reception on my phone better?
Samueli: Yes. And that will happen with LTE-Advanced and 5G. You need smaller cell sizes, basically, is really the most important thing. And the so-called MIMO [multiple in, multiple out] technologies, multiple antennas, (which has) already proven its worth in Wi-Fi. But the bottom line is, the closer you are to the access point or cellular infrastructure, the more robust the signal is. But that takes many, many years to deploy.

IDGNS: You've seen a few booms and busts. Are we in a bubble right now?
Samueli: I don't see it as a bubble. Certainly on the semiconductor side there's no bubble. But there is certainly a lot of excitement in the software and social networking world, so maybe there's a little bit more in that segment than on the hardware side. But it's still nowhere near it was back in 1998-99.

IDGNS: Is the end of Moore's Law coming?
Samueli: It's not happening now, but we can see it in front of us. If you look forward 15 years, we're in 28nm today, people are working on 16nm, 14nm, then there's talk of 10nm beyond that, and from 10nm, maybe you to 7nm, and then maybe 5nm. But it's not obvious to me that we're going to get much beyond that. So, we have maybe three more generations of Moore's Law before we kind of run out of steam. If you look at a 5nm transistor, the atoms of silicon are separated by half a nanometer. So that means in a 5nm gate, you have 10 silicon atoms traversing the gate. You can count the atoms on your fingers. I'm not convinced we can get much beyond that. That may well be another 15 years, and we've reached the end of the road for Moore's Law.

IDGNS: What comes next?
Samueli: It's not obvious what's next, because it's a fundamental physical limit. You need material there, you need molecules and atoms, and we're just running out of space. You can't create a transistor out of nothing.

IDGNS: Presumably, you're doing something about this, or thinking about it.
Samueli: Well, we're thinking a lot about it. It creates an opportunity for companies to become a little more innovative in how they design chips, knowing they're not going to be just running to the next node to shrink them. If you look at the whole analog IC [integrated circuit] industry today, it's based on using older technologies. And they use innovation in the design, as opposed to innovation in the process, to create their products. I think similar types of things are going to happen in the digital world, too.

But again, eventually, the end user is no longer going to be able to buy a faster computer or a faster cellphone. It's going to level off at some point 15, 20 years from now.



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