hardware

Processors: More, yes, but better?

Last week’s Intel Developers’ Forum brought the expected crop of new CPU chips. The simplest way to summarize what’s taking place is this:

  • We’re stuck at 3GHz, so we add more processors on the CPU chip.
  • Intel continues to lead with small “geometries”, 32 nanometers today, 22 nm tomorrow.
  • The company pitches its x-86 processors for mobile devices.

More processors: Once upon a time, each year brought a significant increase in processor speed. Not to be too wistful about the early PC days, but a 1 MHz processor ran “perfectly good” spreadsheets. Like many bouts of nostalgia, this one omits important bits of context such as the complexity of said VisiCalc model, what other software ran concurrently, if any, what storage and networking devices were supported, what kind of display and audio devices were offered. Still, I’d love to see the original assembly language version of Lotus 1-2-3 run on a “bare metal” DOS configuration brought up on a 3GHz Intel machine — a CPU clock 3,000 times faster than the 1983 vintage machine.


In the early 90’s, luxury was a 33MHz Pentium. Now we’re at 3GHz, apparently stuck there  for the last 4-5 years. (A history of Intel processors can be found here.).
Why?
The faster you move something around, the more power you need. Try lifting and lowering a 10 pound weight. Slowly at first, once every 5 seconds, then every second, then twice per second. Your own body temperature will give you the answer.
Inside a processor, we have transistors. These are logic gates, they open and close. In doing so, they shuttle electrons back and forth at the circuit’s clock speed. These electrons are not “weightless”, moving them consumes power, just as we do lifting weight. As the clock rate increases, more power is needed, the transistor temperature increases. There are more precise, more technical ways of expressing this; but the basic fact remains: faster chips are hotter chips. Knowing this, chip designers found ways to counter the temperature rise such as using smaller gates shuttling a smaller “mass of electrons” back and forth. Air or liquid cooling of chips does help as well. Still, we hit a wall. With today’s (and tomorrow’s foreseeable) silicon technology, we’re out of GHz.
So, what do we do for more powerful CPU chips? More

Technology: It’s Over…

In an “Entrepreneurial Thought Leader” lecture given at Stanford University earlier this year, Tom Siebel argues that all of the great technological advances and development of great companies are behind us – and the growth rate for the tech sector is just on par with the rate of current economic growth.

The previous sentence introduces a segment of the February 2009 Stanford lecture, see here for the event’s full video.

It’s not the first time some killjoy predicts the end of tech fun: in 1899, a Charles H. Duell, none less than the Commissioner of the US Patent and Trademark Office, the USPTO reportedly said: “Everything that can be invented has been invented”.
There is a distinct possibility the infamous quote is nothing but an urban legend but, time and again, some sage comes to a forum and tells us the great times are behind us, the tech industry has now entered a grey era of incrementalism.
I’ve personally heard it a few times. In the early 1970s, at Hewlett-Packard where Bill Hewlett told such skeptics where to file their predictions away. In 1985, when I moved to Silicon Valley to take over Apple’s Product Development. I was told Silicon Valley was doomed, it was becoming a ghost town as unheard of layoffs were taking place. In the early 90’s, when the first Gulf War and a bad economy emptied shopping centers and restaurants.
Soon thereafter, the Internet came out of the research lab closet, the browser was invented and yet another wave of innovation came about.
As for Tom Siebel, his background makes the gloomy prediction more puzzling: he’s not part of the kommentariat, he is an industry mensch, the inventor of CRM, rising to the industry’s firmament and later selling Siebel Systems to Oracle for $5.8 billion. Perhaps he was merely trying to arouse his audience and start a reaction.

Still, is he right? Have we entered an era where all of the great technological advances and development of great companies are behind us – and where the growth rate for the tech sector is just on par with the rate of current economic growth?

Absolutely not. More

Kremlinology For Fun and Profit

I’m quite fond of kremlinology, the metaphorical one, not the literal sort. For me, it started as a hobby and ended up making me decades of fun and money. Allow me to explain before we proceed with an attempted decryption of recent Apple events and statements.

Working in Paris in the seventies, I struck an acquaintance with a Gideon Gartner analyst called Aaron Orlhansky. He came to lunch with a bunch of markitecture papers from IBM and I had fun untwisting the real meaning behind sonorous statements coming from “The Company”. That was my amateur kremlinology stint. One day, he casually mentioned his acquaintance with Tom Lawrence, Apple’s top gun in Europe. And he added: ‘Tom’s looking for someone to start Apple France’. I said I was that man, an introduction was made, Tom and I “clicked” immediately and I was hired on December 12th 1980.
Almost three decades later, I’m in the Valley, a kid let out in the candy store, watching wave after wave of exciting entrepreneurs, ideas, technology, products, cultural changes…

On to a bit of Apple kremlinology.

The biggest news was Steve’s appearance at the iPod event last week: ‘I’m vertical’, he said and proceeded to acknowledge his gratitude to the liver donor who allowed him to be there. He also thanked the Apple teams who kept the ship going while he wasn’t so even-keeled. And he encouraged us to become donors. In California, you do that with a code on your driver’s license. Nothing to decode here, everyone is happy to see Dear Leader back in the saddle. He was met with a heartfelt standing ovation.
Now, we hear complaints he’s back lording over details, putting people under tremedous pressure. Good.

Let’s turn to the iPod announcements and to the howls of disappointment over the lack of camera in the new and improved iPod Touch. How could He do this to us, His faithful followers? When questioned, the spinmeister lets its be known the absent camera makes a lower entry price possible, $199. The iPod Touch has emerged as a major game console, you see, and you don’t need a camera on such a device.
I’d say two out of three.
Yes, the games on the 20 million iPod Touches (and 30 million iPhones) shipped so far surprised everyone, Apple first. Games aren’t a side show on the platform, they’ve become a big money maker for developers and a threat to the likes of Nintendo’s DS and Sony’s PSP. Commenting this graph, from Apple’s presentation, Business Insider says ‘the iPhone platform has almost five times the number of game and entertainment titles that Sony and Nintendo’s portable systems have combined.’
Removing the camera to get to a price point? Not convincing, camera modules cost very little, they’re everywhere on cheap cell phones. More

The End of Megapixel Wars

Finally, reason is about to prevail over marketing machismo. Specifically, Canon and Sony are coming up with more advanced cameras featuring less pixels.
Why? In these new cameras, less pixels translates into better pictures in low light. (You might want to refer back to two Monday Notes on digital photography: Pixels Size vs. Number and More on Sensors Digital Photography.)

So far, the selling argument has been more pixels equals better pictures. A higher number conveys an image, so to speak, of higher quality. This is not entirely untrue: it’s nice to have lots of pixels when you need to “crop”, to throw out a large fraction of the original image in order to concentrate on a key detail, a face for example. If you have enough pixels left in the “crop”, it will print or display with good detail.
But there is an important downside: for a given sensor size, more pixels means smaller pixels. In turn, this means each pixels will receive less light energy, less photons to be converted into electrons. The smaller number of electrons will have to “fight” against the background electrical noise in the sensor. The lower signal-to-noise ratio means lower quality pictures. This is particularly true in low-light situations where, to begin with, the number of incoming photons is smaller. More

War in the Valley: Apple vs. Google

It was long overdue: Eric Schmidt (Google’s CEO) finally resigned from Apple’s Board of Directors. Usually, these resignations are handled in the smoothest of ways: Thanks for the distinguished service and the like. This time, Steve Jobs issued a pointed statement: “Unfortunately, as Google enters more of Apple’s core businesses, with Android and now Chrome OS, Eric’s effectiveness as an Apple Board member will be significantly diminished, since he will have to recuse himself from even larger portions of our meetings due to potential conflicts of interest.” Full officialese here.

This is the Valley and its cozy relationships. By which I mean executives and directors sitting on one another’s board, competitors enjoying the same directors, venture firms “sharing” their partners around portfolio companies. For example, besides Eric Schmidt sitting on both Apple’s and Google’s boards, we have Arthur Levinson, head of Genentech, a director of both companies. Or partners at Sequoia (a very successful venture capital firm)
 sitting on boards at YouTube and Google, which might have help a successful “exit”, that is the sale of YouTube to Google.
Back to Apple, there are also lingering allegations of a no-poach agreement, one by which the companies agreed no to hire each other’s workers.
Closer to home: Be, Inc., the operating system company I founded with a few friends from Apple and elsewhere. For a while, one of our investors (and director) also sat on Microsoft’s board. Microsoft executives were investors in his firm and we ended up with Bill Gates (indirectly) owning a piece of Be. Ah well… That was a decade ago, the statute of limitations ran out.
The SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission), the stock market regulator, has become more aggressive in watching out for companies engaging in collusive behavior through cross-directorships. See here .

Back to Dear Leader’s words: Google enters more of Apple’s core business. More

Apple’s Jesus Tablet: What For?

If you went on vacation and renounced Internet access for the duration, you might not have heard the latest rumors concerning the iTablet a.k.a. the Jesus Tablet, Apple’s eagerly awaited entry into the putative bigger than an iPhone but smaller than a MacBook segment. I’m avoiding the n-word: for Apple, this is the no-book category…
As for the religious nickname, let’s go back to MacWorld, in January 2007. Steve Jobs walks on stage and demonstrates the “iPod of phones”. The audience reacts with such religious fervor that, for a while, wags call Steve’s latest miracle the Jesus phone. (I could go on and call AT&T’s network the iPhone’s cross, but I won’t.)

Back to 2009, for the past week, we’ve had the strongest wave to date of rumors and speculation regarding Apple’s second coming (after the Newton, see below) into the tablet space. Putting such froth down would be ignoring the desire, the hope behind the agitation. The Greater We seems to want something bigger than and iPhone and smaller than a 13” MacBook, currently Apple’s smaller laptop.

Great, but what for? More

The Trojan Horse: Web Apps

Web Apps are the future: modern, light, run and updated in the Cloud, they will progressively replace the antiquated, bloated, expensive to buy and manage desktop “client” applications.
So says Google. And walking the talk, they put their Google Apps against the reigning champion of desktop applications: Microsoft Office.
Microsoft never gives up and, as expected, announced a Web-based, a Cloud version of their upcoming Office 2010 along with the classical desktop suite, more feature-rich than ever.

Google Apps are free? Office 2010 on the Web is free. With the advantage of a familiar UI, User Interface, their brand, the desktop version as a fall-back, it would seem Microsoft is staying on top. Google Apps might be free (in most cases) and somewhat fashionable, if only for being “not-Microsoft”, but with the combined desktop and Web versions, Microsoft covers all needs.

Case closed? Not quite. More

Google OS: Chrome-Plated Linux or Microsoft 2.0?

Here’s what I think its taking place:

Microsoft executives and Board members are no dummies: they know Cloud Computing threatens the Windows + Office + Exchange gold mine, the biggest in our industry’s history. They know the future is Office + Exchange running in dual-mode. From the Cloud when a Net connection is available; locally when the Cloud is out of reach. Everything synched back when the connection is restored.
 Imagine Outlook in Cache Mode, just with a browser, without a local client, generalized to all Office applications.
 Their delicate mission, should they choose to accept it, is to move Office and Exchange into the Cloud, into dual-mode applications. The challenge is to get there before Google Apps gain acceptance but without prematurely cannibalizing the existing Office + Exchange profit stream.

On its side, Google wants to protect the search-based advertising gold mine. To do so, they need to hurt Microsoft’s ability to finance a broad-front attack against Google’s core business. That’s why Google wants to offer an alternative to “Office in the Cloud”: with Microsoft no longer able to dictate prices, the Office profit stream would dry up and so would Microsoft’s ability to finance an attack against Google’s core business.

This, I surmise, is the context for last week’s Google Chrome OS announcement — and for a rumored Microsoft event this coming week.

With this in mind, let’s look at Google’s pronunciamento. More

More on sensors [digital photography]

In the (now waning) days of analog photography, much was made of which film was best: Kodak’s Kodachrome, Ektachrome, Fuji’s, Konica, Agfa, Ferrania… to name but a few of the old standards. Today, a similar debate goes on regarding the altogether simpler digital sensors. In the April 5th Monday Note #80, I took a first pass at the sensor size question, one that is, I believe, deliberately obscured by manufacturers. Showing their always flattering view of our intelligence, they peddle the number of pixels in the sensor, regardless of the size of those pixels. Never mind that (everything else being equal) pixel size makes the most important contribution to image quality.

Fortunately, the Web comes to the rescue with tutorials, charts and even calculators. Cambridge In Color features nice tutorials such as this one. A French company, DxO Labs, offers a sophisticated sensor rating site: You’ll see what I mean by sophisticated as the site provides numbers for color depth, dynamic range and low-light ISO. More