Why It's the Megabits, Not the MIPs, That Matter

Earlier this morning I read the comments of Eli Harari, chief executive of Flash memory chip maker SanDisk, in which he tells The New York Times’ Saul Hansell that we are counting down to the end of Moore’s Law.

“We are running out of electrons. When we started out we had about one million electrons per cell,” or locations where information is stored on a chip, he said. “We are now down to a few hundred.” This simply can’t go on forever, he noted: “We can’t get below one.'”

In what could be viewed as a karmic retort to The Times’ Bits Blog post, John Gruber reported that Apple was going to increase the speed of its processor by 1.5 times to 600 MHz, making it easier for the iPhone to render web pages and enhance application usage. The two stories elicited a similar response from me: Why are we measuring Moore’s Law using a yardstick from the PC era?

Processing power and cramming more storage onto chips is something that was part of the PC boom, as Gruber so eloquently illustrates in his post. So why aren’t we phrasing the conversation in the context of networks and connectivity? After all, how many of us really use unconnected computing devices? In today’s world, don’t megabits per second (Mbps) matter more than the MIPS?

My COMMputing (Communications+computing) view of the world puts the speed of the networks and the availability of connectivity at a level higher than the raw oomph of a processor or the capacity of a memory chip. I was musing about this as I walked to the office, so when arrived I got on the phone with Sun Microsystems Chief Technology Officer Greg Papadopoulos, who will be appearing at our upcoming Structure 09 conference on June 25. Papadopoulos has been involved with computers — super and small — for a long time, and as such knows a thing or two about Moore’s Law, so I asked him for his take.

“Moore’s Law is a proxy for the PC industry and that’s what it has come to mean,” he told me. But, he added, “It is much more than that.” With virtualization and parallelism, he said, the basic tenets of Moore’s Law live on. “Silicon is like steel. We have not come to terms with that as an industry and as a society.” I most certainly agree. How you use the cheap stuff and build interesting things is far more relevant. As Papadopoulos noted, the emergence of systems-in-a-package, or SiP, technology, “allows you to combine various different type of silicon modules and built something entirely new. Like combining RF modules, DSPs and memory for a mobile phone.” Indeed, SiP “is a major discontinuity in the semiconductor business,” wrote Sramana Mitra back in April 2005. “SiP will put a further brake in the slowdown of Moore’s Law.” And from Wikipedia:

An example SiP can contain several chips — such as a specialized processor, DRAM, flash memory— combined with passive components — resistors and capacitors — all mounted on the same substrate. This means that a complete functional unit can be built in a multi-chip package, so that few external components need to be added to make it work. This is particularly valuable in space constrained environments like MP3 players and mobile phones as it reduces the complexity of the printed circuit board and overall design.

Thanks to such developments, communications are now being embedded natively into devices that were previously “compute only.” Which brings me back to COMMputing. It doesn’t matter how fast the iPhone processor becomes — all that matters is whether AT&T’s wireless pipe is robust enough for me to effectively leverage the “hardware goodness” of the device. If you don’t have a fast enough network, then you won’t have anything to render on the browser.

“If you ask people if they had a choice of getting a computer with a processor that is 10 times more powerful than their current one, or get a connection that is 10 times as fast, most people would opt for the latter,” Papadopoulos pointed out. He’s is a believer in the 4G wireless broadband technology called Long-Term Evolution (LTE) because he knows that multimegabit wireless speeds are going to spawn a brand-new class of devices. These devices won’t have the fastest processor, or the biggest flash memory drive. Instead they will be connected at high speeds and information and services will be served up over the Internet — instantly.

And at that point no one will ask, how fast is that processor?

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