Smartphones to smite barriers to Moore's Law

MorgueFile user clarita
MorgueFile user clarita

COMMENTARY If you thought smartphones had already found a way to bulge with power while remaining svelte, just wait. New developments in chip technology will eventually let manufacturers pack more punch into smaller packages while extending battery life by breaking down a barrier that has forced companies to incorporate a greater degree of complexity in products than would otherwise be necessary.

The Wall Street Journal described these innovations as Intel's (INTC) effort to remake the radio. But that misses the importance of the evolution in these technologies and how other companies, like Qualcomm (QCOM), have been moving down the same path.

A constant in the tech world has been Moore's Law, the Intel co-founder Gordon Moore's famous observation that the number of transistors on a chip doubles roughly every 18 months. Increasing the density of transistors on a semiconductor means fitting more capability onto a single chip. The more you fit on one chip, the fewer chips you need. Fewer chips mean less power consumption, more compact circuit boards, and, as a result, smaller devices.

One stumbling block in mobile has been the difficulty of putting computing processing circuitry on the same chip with the radio frequency (RF) operations. That's because RF can interfere with the signals in the processor, making silicon co-habitation as problem-free as the typical Hollywood marriage. The increased integration that Moore's law should have allowed was stymied. Manufacturers used multiple chips for their designs, but that added cost as well as increased size and power consumption.

At the recent International Solid-State Circuits Conference in San Francisco, an Intel paper discussed creating an "system on a chip," or SOC, with RF and the processor on the same semiconductor. Intel research scientist Hasnain Lakdawala, who spoke with MoneyWatch in a phone interview, says the company worked on this for three years, using a variety of techniques to keep the RF circuitry from disrupting the processing.

Intel is working on this approach for low-cost mobile markets, such as industrial tablets, and has had to devise a solution that wouldn't add any cost to the price of the chip. As a result, Intel restricted the processor speed to around 600 megahertz to minimize interference. Lakdawala noted that Qualcomm had done similar work in the past, but with even slower processing for regular feature phones.

However, the advances in just a few years suggest that Intel, Qualcomm, and other mobile chip makers have something bigger in mind. As Lakdawala says, "We'd have to change the package significantly" to support higher-speed processors. But if cost were less of a worry, there's no reason why Intel couldn't change the entire chip to enable the greater level of integration with much faster processors.

Although, as the Journal points out, makers of RF chips have steadily reduced costs "by using older manufacturing recipes, RF-friendly materials like silicon germanium and factories that were paid off decades ago," that isn't necessarily a good solution for the ultimate device manufacturers.

Semiconductor companies have long integrated functions on chips to add more value to new chips. Not only do electronics manufacturers get to lower their own costs while making more compact devices, but chip makers capitalize on that integration to move toward their higher-margin products and away from low-profit commodity goods.

By putting the RF functions on the same chip as a process, semiconductor makers will eventually enable smartphone makers to cut the number of parts in their devices, allowing even more compact designs with less power consumption.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.