Finer Control, Same Ideas

To say that history repeats itself is to miss some of the really interesting changes.

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Famed lawyer Clarence Darrow once said, “History repeats itself, and that’s one of the things wrong with history.”

While that basic theme has been argued throughout the history of civilization—smart people are supposed to learn from other people’s mistakes, not just their own—there’s an interesting twist when it comes system-level design. We are using the same technological approaches developed decades ago. In fact, we’re using some of the same ideas created centuries ago when it comes to the binary system. But we’re using it differently, and we’re getting infinitely better about how we use it.

The content is still garbage. We’re still recycling plays from ancient Greece and the late 1500s, and if you were to tune in to the majority of messages on instant messenger, Twitter, Facebook, and all the other international versions, it’s still useless drivel. It’s nice that people are brushing their teeth and taking a shower, but the rest of the world doesn’t need to know that.

Still, the approach to delivering that content, no matter how bad the subject matter, is changing. IBM invented virtualization back in the 1960s in mainframes to better utilize its processing capacity (and the scientists developing the first atomic bomb in New Mexico did something similar back in the 1940s), but now we’re using a similar approach to turn on and off many cores rather than worrying about bottlenecks of trying to fit all processing onto one. They’re there when you need them, quiet when you don’t. We’re also personalizing data delivery and making it mobile, for better or worse.

And while systems used to be a collection of discrete chips, they’re heading back in that direction again with stacked die. The difference is they now will have much higher bandwidth and a much more rational and flexible use of energy, memory, processing power. Over the next few years, designs will be much more granular and programmable, as much dependent on the software as the hardware, and ultimately defined by the user’s needs. Even the manufacturing of these chips is getting more granular, with atomic-level control of doping now very much a reality. These may be small steps—in fact, the steps may be on the nanometric or even picometric scale—but they add up to a very significant shift, and a very interesting one.

If SoCs can be built with this much control, then the convergence of almost everything that we have developed in decades of electronics can be carried around in your pocket without depleting an increasingly thin battery. There will even be some new tweaks thrown in, such as rock-solid security and privacy controls. Most of the content will continue to be garbage, of course. That never seems to change. But at least we’ll be able to experience it in new ways, in new places, and for much longer periods of time—and enabling that makes all of our lives much more interesting.

–Ed Sperling