Why Settle For Good Enough

Sometimes it’s optimal, sometimes it’s detrimental, but deciding what’s good enough isn’t always simple.

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By Kalar Rajendiran
The title of this article is missing a punctuation mark at the end and that is by design. Some readers may read it as a question and some others as a statement, depending on their frame of mind and the particular task they are focused on at that time. This article, although not intended to be a psychoanalysis of how people see and interpret what they see, does highlight how someone who is very focused on some aspects may fail to see other aspects or the big picture. This phenomenon is referred to as “inattentional blindness” or the inability to perceive things that are in plain sight. Those of you who watched Chris Hansen’s NBC Dateline show titled “Did You See That?!” know what I’m referring to.

This article will use some real-life examples from the electronics industry and describe one way for a fabless semiconductor company or a system OEM company to place itself in a position that greatly reduces the likelihood of being afflicted by inattentional blindness when making key decisions relating to their product development. The tangible benefit of course is being able to get a product out to the end-market at reduced risk, lower total cost of ownership and shorter time to market.

Good enough is optimal
Remember the Apple Newton, an early PDA from Apple Computer (now Apple). According to reports, one of the issues that plagued the development and delayed the release of that product was the very high bar that the company set for the product of being able to recognize free-style handwriting. The market, at that time, had a burgeoning need for a hand-held PDA and U.S. Robotics seized that opportunity, defined an alphabet that their PDA could recognize and successfully launched the Palm Pilot product. Meanwhile, the Apple Newton faded into the sunset. This is an example of a company trying to build a perfect product versus taking a good-enough approach that meets the customer need and getting to market quickly.

In the chip-development space, manifestation of this kind of problem can be seen with companies invariably trying to move to the next generation process node and attempting to integrate a multitude of their previous generation chips. Moore’s law is so ingrained in our system and minds that, irrespective of the market segments, companies always try to integrate all they can into their next chip instead of thinking whether an MCM or SiP may be a better way for their next product. A better approach for the next product may be to simply leverage their existing chips, integrate them in a SiP, add a new software stack and release the product to market earlier than the competition, so a lion’s share of the market can be captured.

Good enough is detrimental
The talk of the world nowadays is how it was possible for Apple to have not noticed the “Antenna” problem before it released the iPhone4. This is neither a quality problem nor a manufacturing problem but rather a design problem. No one knows exactly what happened during the design review phase and what tradeoffs were considered and taken. Knowing there will be millions of iPhone4 users who will be holding the phone differently should have been a primary factor that went into the design of the phone and the location of the antenna. It is the holding-hand/phone physical-contact interface that must have been of paramount importance in the design of the product. Knowing that the phone design will work for a good percentage of users was not an acceptable tradeoff. This is a situation where good enough was not an acceptable choice. In fact, it was a bad choice. One can only guess if this had anything to do with the sudden departure in August of Apple’s senior VP of devices hardware engineering. Given the huge following that Apple has and the popularity of the iPhone, Apple will weather this storm and come out ahead. But any other company in this situation would have likely fared very poorly.

In the chip-development space, manifestation of this kind of problem may be seen with companies that are building products for the communications market. Example: Some companies purely focus on procuring the lowest cost SerDes IP without any regard to what their finished chips will interact with on either side of the data flow. For example, if you’re building an NPU chip, it is very important to note whose switch fabric chips and whose Framer/MAC chips will be used in the system. Depending on that, you will know whose SerDes IP is being used in the Framer/MAC chips and the switch fabric chips. The reason this is important is because using the same SerDes IP in your NPU chip will ensure your chip will not have any interoperability issues by design. This makes it easier for the NPU chip company to sell its chips to system companies such as Cisco and Juniper. The NPU chip company may have to do variants of its chip depending on which system companies it wants to sell to but the effort and cost involved may be well worth it.

A better way
Bringing products to market today is a multifaceted, global process often requiring involvement from a range of suppliers including foundries, IP suppliers, design tool and services providers, test and packaging/assembly service providers, just to name a few. This semiconductor value chain differs depending on a customer’s unique requirements and design.

As a customer, if you’re trying to interface directly with these entities, there is a good chance that you may be affected by inattentional blindness. For example, going direct with a foundry will cause one to see all the great benefits of the latest process node and distract them from seeing if these features are really needed for their product.

Interfacing directly with an IP supplier may cause the customer to see only the best features of that IP and the IP cost but distract the customer from seeing if that is the right choice of IP for its products given where and how its products will be used in the system.

Seeking the services of a Value Chain Producer (VCP) may be the better way to get the customer’s products built. A VCP’s goals are always aligned with those of the customers, as the VCP’s sole motivation is to help its customers get their products designed, manufactured and productized with minimized risk, shortened time to market and optimal total cost of ownership. An independent VCP—meaning one that is not partly owned by a foundry or any other supply chain entity—does not have any vested interest to promote a particular process node or piece of IP or a package.

Conclusion
It is imperative that businesses ask the pivotal question of “Is this good enough?” at every key decision point of the product development including system architecture and design, process technology selection, IP selection, package selection, multi-chip integration decision, including service provider selection. As discussed in this article, it is not an easy decision. For the same customer, the “good enough” choices made for one product may not be good for other products. And where it makes sense, choose an independent partner to help make those choices.

Kalar Rajendiran is senior director of marketing at eSilicon.


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