ASICs, SOCs and Rock’s Law

In this series about the future of the computer, we looked at Moore’s Law: chips become smaller and have more transistors. We also know that that doesn’t mean they become more powerful. The examples we used came mainly from desktop CPUs. How about smaller CPUs, like those used in smartphones?

Hurray, 14nm chips!
Hurray, 14nm chips!

One hype at the moment is that the chip in the latest Samsung Galaxy S6 is produced using  a 14nm process, just like the Intel Broadwell chips. Cool! Hurray! No worries! Unfortunately, one swallow doesn’t make the summer. The only reason why Samsung can use such a process for smartphones (and Intel for PCs) is that there’s a lot of money in that market. Smartphones (and even PCs) get sold a lot. But what is really the status of ASICs and SoCs?

Most processes are stuck around 28nm or larger. There’s a reason for that: Rock’s Law (also known as Moore’s second law). The law states that it becomes harder and more expensive to comply with Moore’s law. There are even prophets who preach that Moore’s Law just stopped at 28nm. Technology wouldn’t be technology if they didn’t look at this as a challenge. Even Intel is looking for alternatives for silicon starting at 7nm (even though the alternatives don’t look viable at the moment). There is still plenty of work to be done on CPUs, but the focus has moved on.

So what is the tech sector working on when it’s not working on pure compute? Applications. The days of the “killer app” that turned a platform into a success (VisiCalc) are behind us. These days, the platform itself is the application: we build small computers that do something specific, connect them to each other and call it the Internet of Things.