Archive for May, 2011

Will FinFETs Save Intel?

Posted: May 31, 2011 in ARM, Intel, Tablet
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I have said before that Intel’s big ace in the hole is its process technology. At the beginning of this month, Intel made an announcement regarding their Tri-Gate technology. They make it sound completely unique to Intel but in reality it exists at several companies although the industry usually refers to it as FinFET technology. Never mind that others also have this technology. The key is that Intel can out process those guys.  Intel consistently has superior real world (volume production ready) process technology compared to anyone. When the world moved to 90nm and below, leakage current became a big deal. Many would say it became the dominant design factor if you are at all concerned with power. This meant that going smaller didn’t necessarily reduce power. It meant complex design choices just to save power. You could design with a low leakage transistor or a low power one. Today designers often mix transistor types to get the best balance of speed and power. FinFETs offer a move back to the old world where smaller meant both faster and lower power.

For decades we have lived in a world where processing speed and cost were the big drivers. What hasn’t been a huge issue has been power. Yeah, we would give it lip service and laptops would have to take it into account but it still took a back seat to speed and cost. That has changed. That is how ARM went from being a niche architecture to threatening the behemoth of the CPU world. Now power is a major focus of Intel. If all things were equal it would be a case of realizing the future too late to stop where things are headed. But… all things aren’t equal and it isn’t a level playing field. Intel has huge resources and access to proprietary process technology. The world won’t move from ARM to Atom just because Intel wants them too. Companies like the fact that they can bake their own chips by licensing an ARM core. The ARM architecture is now standard in both the smartphone and tablet worlds. However, all phone and tablet companies are pushing up against power consumption that runs into the brick wall of battery technology. Batteries are improving but not as fast as the demand for mobile processing power. If Intel can make Atom based chips clearly superior to ARM based approaches when it comes to power then they just might be able to win companies over. They are trying very hard. Stay tuned.

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Another Blow to Privacy

Posted: May 30, 2011 in Aviation, Privacy
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The FAA is ending the Block Aircraft Registration Request, BARR, program. This program allowed flight information of general aviation aircraft to be blocked from viewing by the general public. The elimination of this program is not an issue of national security. At all times, government agencies had access to the blocked flight information. Some will see this as a strike against corporate CEO’s cavorting about in corporate jets. In reality it is another blow to privacy for all of us. No longer can a celebrity block flight information to prevent a stalker from tracking a flight. This won’t directly affect most of us. I have never made use of the BARR program. Despite that I mourn the passing of one more bit of privacy. Bringing this closer to home is an idea that keeps popping up and that is taxing automobiles based on how many miles they are driven. This isn’t new. It has been proposed before. What isn’t mentioned is how this would be done. GPS tracking is the usual answer. This means the potential to have the government tracking everywhere you go. Now do you feel a little more sympathetic to those people losing the right to limit tracking of their aircraft?

I was reading about the Asus Padfone and it got me second guessing some of the things I have written. Am I wrong that the phone will be primary with a wireless link to other display devices? Or… perhaps I am correct and these are just steps along they way. That happens when a trend is major as I previously discussed. The problem with my solution is battery life. What the Padfone brings is the large battery in the tablet. Having a full time high bandwidth link will require major improvements in battery technology. That will come but it isn’t here right now. Perhaps each device should be able to stand on its own. If so then what happens to my dream of the phone as the central device? It stays alive in a modified form. Rather than transmitting the display perhaps the devices are sync’d so each has the same programs and all that needs to be transferred is current status and data. This will minimize data transfer and hence battery consumption. Switching from device to device won’t be quite as seamless but the basic idea will be there. As battery technology gets better we will eventually reach full integration but right now we’ll have to be satisfied with incremental steps. As I’ve said before, this is going to be interesting and a lot of fun to watch.

When making tapioca pudding the directions say to bring the pudding to a full boil. They are even nice enough to explain what a full boil is. Little do they say that the volume will increase and potentially overflow the pan. Starting with an inch and a half of room might not be enough. Another lesson learned.

It may seem like I have been mostly regurgitating news. Look deeper. I am trying to point out the trends of convergence and transparency and how they are reaching everywhere. On the surface Google Wallet is a nice tweak to how you pay for what you buy. In terms of those affected it is easy to see the retailers, banks and credit card companies. If you look on the surface at semiconductor companies you might just think about those chips which enable NFC. This is part of something much bigger that affects many more companies. NFC services like Google Wallet will make transactions more transparent i.e. easier and more convenient. They also converge services into the phone and continue pushing the phone towards becoming your dominant computing platform. This is what I started this blog off with. It doesn’t matter if Google Wallet in it’s present form becomes big or not. It’s a symptom of a larger movement. No matter what business you are in you need to evaluate your strategy with convergence and transparency in mind. How will your business play out when the phone is the dominant computing platform? Intel and AMD are reacting to this today. For once the interests of AMD and Intel are aligned. They need to bring the X86 architecture to tablets and then mobile phones. Microsoft is also reacting as they worry about Windows being marginalized. Think how differently this would have been had the iPhone and iPad been based on the Atom processor. For the other chip companies there is the increasing importance of LTE and the cloud. Flash memory will continue to be pushed to grow in density and decrease in price. The world is moving towards one gigabyte of storage in the phone. Remember reading about how over built the global network is? Think again. OLED screens will finally become a mainstream technology driven by the phone. Eventually they will grow to be the dominant technology in both laptops and TV’s.  This shift affects media. The RIAA and  MPAA continue their vain attempts at protecting intellectual property rather than embracing the technology trends and profiting from them. That’s an entire blog (or two or three) in and of itself. Is your company preparing for the upcoming changes? More importantly, have you looked deep to see how convergence and transparency will change your business landscape?

I have mentioned PayPal in not one, not two but three different posts. Yesterday PayPal got upset and filed a suit against Google. It’s the usual stuff about stealing employees and with them intellectual property. What it is really about is Google daring to attack PayPal and PayPal getting scared. I suspect this is a pointless battle. Lawyers will make money but otherwise progress will march on. The system will get more streamlined and efficient. PayPal will ultimately disappear or get merged in with an electronic wallet system. It’s not like this is the only attack on PayPal. The credit card companies are also starting to offer PayPal type services.

Google just finished announcing Google Wallet. This is their NFC based payment system. In reality it is a lot more. You can read the details here. I have talked about this before. I don’t want to regurgitate details already covered but I do want to cover a few obvious items and some not so obvious one. The first involves why Google is doing this in the first place. In the near term (more about this later) they are making nothing on the transactions run through Google Wallet. The seeming financial beneficiaries are the store involved, the credit card company and the clearing house. We must ask our selves what Google’s business model is. It’s advertising. Targeted advertising is more valuable and hence able to fetch a higher price than random advertising. In the near term this is all about knowing who you are, where you are, and how you spend your money. If you are getting a little edgy about your privacy there’s a reason. You won’t have any. Google already knows more about you than the government does and that knowledge base is growing. Google Wallet extends that knowledge base. You do get benefits in return. For giving up your privacy you will gain ease of use and discounts on your purchases.

Watching the players in this was interesting. Each took their assigned segment. Google proclaimed they were the altruistic software provider that happened to make money on advertising but nothing else. Sprint  was happy to be the carrier placing the services on the phone. Citi wants to be the bank involved, Mastercard the credit card company and lesser known First Data the clearing house. Then there was the lineup of retailers happy that it would be easier to part you from your money. In many ways, players like Mastercard, First Data and Citi have little choice. This is going to happen with or without them. All of these players will be near term winners. I wonder, however, if any of them have a little fear about the long term future. The immediate losers are companies like Groupon. The retail coupon business is slipping into a Google business unit. Groupon isn’t a very large outfit nor are the others like it. I doubt many will see this as a big deal. A bigger potential loser is PayPal. Not mentioned was the fact that Google Wallet will quickly pick up the capability of PayPal. All of this is relatively near term. What happens later as mighty Google and it’s rivals Apple and Microsoft seek new avenues for increasing revenues? Google, with the world’s most powerful computer network, will have to ask itself why so much of this process, including the profits, goes to others. Perhaps they will decide to become the clearing house and edge out First Data. After that perhaps Mastercard will be a target. I doubt they will want to be your bank but who knows. Some of those faces that were smiling today might be wearing frowns in ten or fifteen years.

For the consumer, Google Wallet and related moves will mean a further increase in retail efficiency. Generally this is a good thing. Purchasing will get easier and tracking purchase will get easier too. Lost receipt issues will go away. Coupons will be easy to use and not a low paying paper cutting  job as it sometimes seems. While privacy will diminish, it will mean advertising that is relevant and generally useful.

I’m a semiconductor guy. What does this mean for the chip business? It means volume in everything related to this process. It means smartphone sales, and the chips inside them, will increase. It means lots of readers being deployed so stores can accept Google Wallet. The reach doesn’t stop there. Behind all of this will be massive data centers and a lot of network bandwidth. That means all of the chips that support these areas have a bright future.