The Next Frontiers

Small technology shifts are about to cause huge upheaval in system-level definitions, managing risk, and who’s in charge.


One of the interesting things about technology is that, at least from the outside, it’s hard to tell what’s actually changing.

That’s not true on the inside, of course, where radical shifts are under way. The next big push in smart phones will be much greater intelligence. In the iPhone, Siri was just the tip of the iceberg. Future versions are likely to be much more interesting. Add to that the ability to more easily navigate between base stations and to intelligently manage power and performance throughout a battery charge and the changes under the covers will be enormous.

All of this requires far more compute power, much faster signal processing and routing, faster memory throughput, advances in coherency, and much more complex power management schemes. It will even require new architectures, which is why we’re headed down the path of 2.5D and 3D stacked die, pre-integrated subsystems and significant changes in software.

At the other end of the spectrum, these changes are equally prevalent in the data center, where improvements in efficiency and performance are significant enough to be line items on an operating expense budget. The emphasis on NVM Express and PCIe are just the start of what will prove to be a massive change in the way data is managed, stored and shared in the corporate enterprise, and it will require much more sophisticated electronics and software to make it all work.

Where electronics have been in more limited use, it’s far easier to spot what’s changing. In automobiles, for example, the shift from mechanical to electrical has opened up broad new opportunities for improving safety (even though some of this stuff is a distraction to the driver), adding convenience, and improving performance and fuel efficiency. What remains to be seen is ultimately how these inroads by electronics will change automobiles. Will they continue to be differentiated by the car vendors, or will they be differentiated by the makers of electronics the way a company like Apple has changed the music industry?

It’s easy to lose sight of the engineering feats in complex problem solving that enable these advances. It’s also easy for teams that accomplish these feats to lose sight of the bigger picture. All of these changes require an increasingly larger view of the system, big systems based on much more complex little systems, and all working together much more seamlessly than in the past. That means far more standards, more awareness of changes implemented on all levels, and more cooperation between groups that have never actually talked before.

So what will this ultimately mean for SoCs? Will it impede innovation as companies standardize on platforms and subsystems, or will it increase innovation as these platforms are called upon to drive more of the functionality in an ever-larger definition of the system? And who will assume the risk as complexity between groups continues to rise in an increasingly complex supply chain?

The changes on the outside may look like small changes to the consumers using technology, but underneath there is likely to be a lot of churn in all directions as technology continues to improve.

—Ed Sperling