As two recent articles in the Wall Street Journal point out, the celebrated tech axiom known as Moore’s Law is reaching its 50th birthday. The term is named for the idea first posited by Gordon Moore that the number of transistors that could be crammed into a given space would double about every two years or so, and continue to do so, indefinitely. And we all know what happens when you double something over and over again… pretty soon we’re talking large numbers.
As an article by Michael S. Malone in the April 18th Journal pointed out, the idea began as a graph (shown here) that illustrated an article in Electronics magazine. It didn’t gain Moore’s named affixed to it for another ten years. At the time, Moore was working for Fairchild Semiconductor. He would later co-found and become CEO of Intel.
Over 50 years, Moore’s idea has indeed stood the test of time, despite regular predictions of its imminent demise. Chip performance doubles about every 18 months.
But it is getting harder.
Today, the design and testing of the next generation of chips comes at a cost of $132 million, according to International Business Strategies, Inc. of Los Gatos, California. Just ten years ago, that cost was a mere $16 million. The circuitry required for today’s newest chips has a width of just 14/billionths of a meter, allowing manufacturers to squeeze hundreds of millions more transistors on a chip than previously able. But, as the Journal’s Don Clark points out in another article, “designing products that use so many more components takes lots of time and money.”
While it’s said that the shrinkage can continue for at least another decade, the price of these chips is going up dramatically. As Micron Technology CEO Mark Durcan notes, “There will be smaller and smaller pieces of the market that will pay for the improvement.”
Early on, Moore predicted that the number of components on a single chip would double every year or so from 60 to about 65,000 by 1975. Back in the early days of Fairchild, a transistor sold for $150. Today, Intel’s Core i5 chip includes 1.3 billion transistors and sells for the equivalent of about a penny for every 70,000 transistors.
So while the relative cost (as viewed in cost per transistor) may have declined dramatically, the fact is, making these chips is becoming prohibitively expensive as chip heat constraints bump into the walls of physics and smaller pieces of the market are willing to pay for these advances. There may indeed be a non-technical – but fiscal — reason that “the end is near” for Moore’s famous law. Chip fab plants now run upwards of $10 billion. Production delays due to manufacturing defects at Intel caused it to be a half-year late on its latest chip.
Then again, new technologies (like stacked three-dimensional circuits with 32 or 48 layers per chip) will keep boosting device capacities. Intel plans to deliver a chip for specialized applications this year with 8 billion transistors – 133 million times more than when Gordon Moore first made his bold prediction.
So perhaps fans of Moore’s Law might say as Mark Twain once said… “the rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.”