Redefining ‘Good Enough’

Doing the best engineering work possible doesn’t always guarantee better ROI or even the best products.

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The old definition of a good chip was that it could be manufactured with reasonable yield, it was functionally solid, and it performed at least as well as the market demanded. That definition is changing, however.

There will always be a difference between ‘good’ and ‘good enough.’ We all want to own the ‘good’ chips in our electronic devices. But what’s noteworthy are the changes under way on the ‘good enough’ side and how they compare with the ‘good’ chips.

One change, of course, is the increased reliance on software. If the device isn’t life-critical and it can be fixed with a software patch—or if it’s a consumer device that will be replaced within a year or two—then a few glitches aren’t considered that important. The phone function still has to work on a smart phone, but it doesn’t necessarily have to work better than another phone. And the Internet access on a phone isn’t expected to be as good as a desktop connected via Ethernet.

A second change is that in some markets time to revenue is considered more important than great engineering. While advanced chip companies continue to invest in some of the best power-saving techniques for prolonging battery life, many OEMs that buy the chips and assemble them into final products don’t take advantage of those features. Or more accurately, they willfully ignore those features because it takes to long to optimize them.

Third, just having functionality is good enough in some markets even if it’s not the best implementations of those functions. As long as they work that’s considered good enough. The differentiator isn’t the technology. It’s the availability of new products. Even in the IP market, best of breed isn’t always as important as integrated and tested. The financial risk of getting it all wrong with all the best IP is huge when 70% or more of the chip is reusable or purchased IP. In fact, that’s potentially more costly than losing some market share to superior engineering.

There are pendulum swings in IC design, as there are in all markets. Companies that go for ‘good enough’ and that compete on price and time to market historically have run their course and been burned. What’s changed is that with complexity affecting even the best-run companies—witness Apple’s antenna problem, Intel’s Sandy Bridge chips and a long line of overheating batteries from multiple vendors—good enough isn’t always less reliable. In some cases, good enough may actually be better.

–Ed Sperling


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