Lessons From The Big Apple

Low-power designs for all of us—and why standards may show the way.

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Apple this week announced some big changes in their product lineup. Having already released their MacBook Air with the power-sipping Intel Haswell processor, Apple has made further strides with an operating system upgrade that extends battery life by yet another 10% to 15%.

For those deep into technology, you may already know that low-power design capability wasn’t created overnight. It has been enabled by years of development of new device structures (e.g. FinFETs) by universities and chipmakers, and agreement on standard power formats by EDA vendors. But, Apple remains ahead of the pack through their complete control of system development and deployment—from hardware design up through operating system and application development. In other words, extreme vertical integration. Of course, there have been complaints about the downsides of Apple’s tight-fisted control of their ecosystem, and some may be merited, but the power payoff is tough to argue against.

Recently, my company provided me with a MacBook Air, and the freedom of being able to work long hours from nearly any location, without the worry of finding the nearest outlet, is truly liberating. Last night, after hearing about the operating system upgrade, I quickly installed it to take advantage of the extra hour or two it would afford. This improvement is already paying off this morning.

What is exciting about Apple’s update is that it shows there is still room for improvement regarding low-power design, and that an important part of this improvement will be in power-aware operating systems and apps—in effect, a proof-case that further gains are available. But how are similar power improvements made available to a company that doesn’t control their complete supply chain? The answer is in better communication between links in the supply chain, from the software designers to hardware implementers.

Of course, even with industry consolidation, the number of communication paths between numerous suppliers increases the complexity of the problem—this is ultimately where standards come-in. Standard interfaces and grammar create clear and efficient interoperability.

To further strengthen the point, the need for system power modeling and addressing software’s impact on power has been front and center in recent discussions with our members. One of the issues appears to be that software developers don’t have a solid sense of how their programming decisions impact system power consumption. Based on feedback, a clear need exists for “power-aware software developers,” and the means to provide a bridge between the hardware and software spaces in passing along precise power information. One of our members has suggested that somehow providing a “power meter” in the programmer’s development environment would provide immediate feedback as to the apps’ impact on system power use. This member is CEO of the largest processor IP provider.

In a similar vein, at the recent Si2Con event held in Santa Clara, Vojin Zivojnovic from Aggios provided a visionary talk about potential power improvements available for many systems, besides the well-power-managed mobile phones and tablets, that cumulatively draw a tremendous amount of power. These systems include servers, routers, set-top boxes, gaming systems, cars, and even home appliances. I believe Vojin is onto something. I also believe that standards facilitating this bridge between hardware and software are a fertile area for development, and will help the rest of the non-vertically-integrated industry along the path toward fully optimized, low-power systems. For a copy of his presentation, go here.