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Were There Bright Spots in 2008? Is There Hope for 2009?

WARREN ANDREWS, ASSOCIATE PUBLISHER

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Happy New Year. Well, let’s at least hope it’s going to be a happy year. We’ve seen some rough times in 2008–record layoffs in Silicon Valley and elsewhere in the computer/electronics business; major losses and dismal forecasts from semiconductor companies, particularly memory makers; lackluster forecasts from everyone from cell phone makers to communications companies, and shortfalls being reported in the industrial control and automation business.

And if that’s not enough, we’re seeing new hostility between Palestine and Israel, the potential eruption of hostility between Israel and Iran, saber rattling by the Russians, a continued threat of domestic terrorism, mayhem in the financial markets, a failed auto industry and escalating domestic bail-outs. As Dirty Harry might say, “go ahead, make my day.”

A Great New Year

However, this is a new year and I think it’s important that we all have a positive outlook–or at least try to put a positive spin on some dismal news. First off, not all news for 2008 was dismal. For example, on the technology front, several developments have set the stage for new product development for future years. Many of the developments below have already started generating the platforms–and revenue–that will be at the heart of the embedded-computer business for years to come.

One of the most significant technology boosts for 2008 might well have been Intel’s 45nm hafnium-based technology that has enabled the Atom, which in turn is pushing 32-bit embedded control into smaller places where issues of space, power consumption and heat had been previously prohibitive. We need only look at the explosion of small boards and modules taking advantage of Intel’s Atom family (and other small low-power processors such as Via’s Nano) to see that these developments have put a major tool in the hands of embedded-computer developers. These new products promise to enable a new generation of embedded processors in a broad base of applications–many currently untouched by the semiconductor industry.

And, such processor technology has made possible the next-generation netbook–some kind of cross between the intelligent phone/PDA and a notebook computer. While this new family of devices is squarely in the commercial space, look for the transfer of many design ideas, chipsets and other assets from the netbook world to the embedded world. It’s already started.

What’s ahead for Intel? CEO Paul Otellini envisions an x86-based processor in everything. RTC Editor-in-Chief, Tom Williams, says there is much more for Intel coming as it plans to turn “green”–that is, turn its shareholders green with cash while contributing in a major way to save energy.

Where’s the technology future? “I guarantee you that Moore’s Law will not end on my watch,” Otellini says. So expect to see Intel continue process development on a grand scale. Already the company has 32nm feature sizes in the works and on experimental die. That’s about a 30% decrease in feature size, translating to commensurate savings in power dissipation and cost.

The industry has long been chasing the perfect memory technology–dense, fast, non-volatile and cheap. As a result, memory technology has seen some significant development from the early days of DRAM, SRAM and PROMs on to flash. However all have been essentially the same. The latest effort from HP, though envisioned long ago, comes in the form of a memory resistor, which it claims to have built. The theory of a “memristor” was postulated back in 1971, but it has taken until now to make a working version. HP’s claim is that it would be more energy efficient than flash or other technologies, and can permanently store information. The prototype was made putting a film of titanium dioxide between electrodes and applying a charge. As the charge flows through it, the atomic structure actually changes. Not yet in production

But it gets better. A new approach, from Numonyx, a joint venture recently formed by Intel and STMicroelectronics, is betting on a technology called phase-change memory, which takes advantage of certain materials’ characteristics to change physical structure with the application of heat. The company claims it is now shipping 128 Mbit chips using the phase-change approach. The company claims it will have dramatic density increases in the coming year. An interesting aside is that the phase-change technology has been attributed to Stan Ovshinsky, a name that might be familiar to older readers. Ovshinsky was the founder of a technology that became known as Ovonics, and he worked primarily with photovoltaic cells but studied and developed many patents on phase shifting from amorphous to crystalline states.

In April this year, HVVi Semiconductor announced a new way to do RF Power Transistors that allows higher operating voltages (48V and more), thereby outperforming the dominant RF power transistor standard (Lateral Double-diffused metal Oxide Semiconductor (LDMOS)) that’s been used for the past 15 years in radar systems. Look for newer, more powerful and less expensive RF systems coming down the pike.

These are but a very few of the many heady developments of the year from the semiconductor side of the fence. However, they have been enabling technologies and have made possible innovation in other areas. SUMIT and COMIT, for example, are two of the latest standards developed to provide module makers and users more flexibility for more powerful cards. Other developments on the module front include a MiniBlade spec for Solid-State Drives on small boards also by the SFF-SIG.

GPS is now everywhere. And while people are quick to point out that the system is a lot older than many think (it first became operational in 1978), it suddenly popped back into the mainstream of activity this year with GPS capability showing up on phones and notebooks in the commercial world. Devices that don’t have true GPS capability have made do with cell-tower triangulation or geolocation based on Wi-Fi hot spots. And it’s all crept onto all variety of boards and modules in the embedded world for any number of unique applications from location monitoring of trucks and cargo to knowing where patients are for medical monitoring.

And, lest we forget, we are firmly entrenched in the age of the multicore processor, which has enabled countless new SBCs and powerful computing engines. Only a year or so ago, these megaliths reached the commercial market and already have become the de facto processor technology for virtually all applications. And we’re already seeing the next-generation Atom processor emerge in multicore configurations as the demand is voracious. And if that’s not enough, we’re going to be seeing some real-time software capability for these new processors in coming months.

On the Other Fronts

And while we’ve been focusing on technology development and innovation, not all the business and economic news is as bleak as forecasters would have it. That’s right, it’s OK to look up, the sky isn’t falling. Though in some cases it’s a bad-news, good-news scenario, there is a good-news component.

For example, the SIA (Semiconductor Industry Association) reports that global chip sales have declined. However, after saying that, it adds that the sector will remain the U.S.’s second largest exporter for the year. Further, the largest drop has been with makers of memory chips that have suffered price erosion–buy now while the getting is good. The other good news is that researchers can’t agree on what 2009 will look like. While all predicted a drop in 2009, it ranged from 5.6% to 16%, there was universal agreement that there would be a rebound in 2010.

Further, many corporate technology chiefs see some bright spots forthcoming. While they agree that not everything is going to be rosy, areas of technology such as online software, mobile applications and security will likely see a boost in coming months. Also, though overall technology spending may be soft, and technology buyers may not be trotting off to buy the latest and greatest, new generations of embedded computers are likely to hit the spot in some soft areas with room for productivity enhancement.

And while we’ve seen the price of crude oil drop to multi-year lows, individuals and companies became critically energy conscious only six months or so ago when oil approached the $150 a barrel level. Look for new energy saving devices from motor control to environmental control in the industrial area this year. The bottom line is that the population’s mindset is changing to be greener and more economical, moving those market areas forward with a concomitant reliance on embedded electronics

And finally, the military/aerospace market promises solid growth throughout 2009. I just completed my annual market update and forecast for our sister publication, COTS Journal, and despite the change in administration, all indicators are pointing in a positive direction for the merchant market for embedded computers in the military and aerospace markets.

Two thousand eight may not have been the most sterling year on many of our calendars. However, of the many people I spoke with in the embedded-computer business toward the end of the year, all had much the same thing to say, “in spite of what everyone is saying, business has been pretty good. I just hope it stays that way.” Happy New Year.