Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Intel hedging against Moore's Law?

Intel's delivery of the first 16 Moore's law cycles are widely admired across the industry as being on-time and on-budget.  This unique reputation, 40 years in the making, strikes a fear of falling behind into the hearts of competing manufacturers.  Photons not traveling straight enough?  No problem, just immerse the whole process in liquid to straighten that up.  Need the performance of a 4-atom-thick insulating layer without the defect rate?  No problem, just change the way transistors have been made since CMOS was invented.  Up to now, Intel has achieved these milestones without any outside help, and has lately accrued a substantial lead in process technology.  Competitors are running to each other in the hopes of not falling further behind.

That's what makes this story about Intel partnering with Toshiba and Samsung for the next two Moore's Law cycles so surprising.  Who would have thought Intel could use some help pushing Moore's Law along?

Now, it is possible to downplay this, I mean it is only for flash memory technology - and Intel is not confirming the story either, so it may not happen at all.  But let's suppose it is and think through this for a second.  Many steps in the process to make flash memory are also used to make microprocessors (e.g. both require fabricating a type of transistor), so Toshiba and Samsung should get a serious leg up on their way to producing non-flash devices at 10nm as well.  This could potentially concede part of Intel's lead in fabrication technology - that's a big downside.  Why risk it?

One answer is that Intel foresees real struggles and the potential for long delays before achieving 10 nanometer parts. By partnering, Intel trades the increased risk of losing its technology lead for a decreased risk of reaching 10 nanometers slowly or not at all.  That is some serious doubt coming out of the company that should be most confident about its future.

Let's hope the story is wrong and that Intel is indeed as confident as can be about their timely achievement of 10 nanometers and beyond.

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