What would we do without Moore’s Law?

Posted: 03.25.11

And all the other phrases and acronyms we live with

Carver Mead pioneer of modern microelectronics and inventor of Moore’s law (Photo: Scott C. Lemon)

Have you ever wondered how you would explain the technological developments of the past ten years, or the forecast for new technology without using the phrase, Moore's law? I supposed you could, but it'd be wordy, probably awkward, and you'd never say it quite the same way each time. Thank you Carver Mead.

Carver Mead?

In April 1965, in Electronics Magazine, Gordon Moore published a story titled, "Cramming more components onto integrated circuits." In that paper he stated that transistor counts had doubled every year. But it wasn't until 1970 when the visionary VLSI pioneer and Caltech professor, Carver Mead used the expression "Moore's law," to illustrate his predictions.

Yes, Moore's law was invented by Carver Mead. Not the observation Moore made, but the term Moore's law.

Other terms we use in our daily lives are X86. Ever think about what the "X" stands for or what "86" means? The "86"ness started in 1978 when Intel introduced the 8086. The 80186 was introduced in 1982, quickly followed by the 80286. But it was the introduction of the popular 80386 that created the X86 nomenclature, and we spent the next few years predicating the next x86 processor. However, Intel's processor name was being cloned and the company was losing the value of its brand to competitors, the patent office said you can't trademark numbers, so with the 80386 Intel moved to the i386 nomenclature, and then in 2000 dropped the 86 nomenclature and introduced the Pentium – bye-bye 86, we knew ye well, and sing your praises still today.

THIS is the cloud (courtesy Google)

We started using the term CPU in the 60s. Prior to that we said arithmetic processing element and other clunky words to describe what became the CPU.

So short cuts and acronyms help us, make speech and idea transfer easier and more efficient, and sometimes comical. I once sat in a meeting where a product manger spoke for 15 seconds (about a paragraph or more) and his speech was 95% acronyms. I asked him afterwards if he knew he had done that, and he hadn't – for him, and others, the acronyms were like pictographs, they conjured up images and had meanings. If he had had to use full words and properly formed sentences to convey his point he would have spent twice as long and probably lost some of the audience with our notorious short attention spans.

Which brings me back to Moore's law. Think of the many times and many ways we have used, and maybe abused, the term. "Moore's Law" has morphed from an observation about optical and deposition systems to be scaled down in a steady cadence of every 18 months or two years, to meaning prices stay the same but the processor gets twice as fast, or the processor stays the same and the cost are half as much – every two years, give or take. All of what I just wrote used thirty words to say what we mean when we say Moore's law.

You (should) know what RISC means. Well we've developed a reduced instruction set language with our acronyms and phrases. Our current fascination is with the term "cloud." It means so many things to various people. The cloud is just the internet, but the concept of it extends to clustered servers, off-site and out of sight computing and compute farms, and to some even more mysterious things. I've watched people actually wave their hands in the air gropingly when they talk about the cloud as if there were actual clouds above us. You could say we are bathed in clouds of WiFi and other electromagnetic radiation. (As a humorous side note, some people here in Marin country don't want smart meters installed because they fear the effects of the radiation—if only they knew how much radiation they actually lived in.)

THIS is the cloud (courtesy Google)

The cloud was formed in the early 1960s when we evolved to off-site client-server architectures and got what were called "smart terminals." It's pretty much the same design today, the communications links are a lot faster, and our smart terminals (PCs) are a lot" smarter" and faster, and the CPU is a lot larger and faster, but it's still the same basic architecture – packets in, packets out, and a little crunching and sorting in between. And remember, the cloud has been brought to you by Moore's law.