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Electronic Design

Tech Year In Review

The transistor gets its most thorough makeover in nearly 40 years. Intel and IBM change the composition of the gate stack, which researchers say is necessary for the perpetuation of Moore’s Law. The new high-k plus metal-gate (HK+MG) design swaps silicon-dioxide insulation, which has become rather leaky at only five atoms thick, and a silicon gate for a “high-k” dielectric insulator and a metal gate. The redesign will curb power leakage and consumption and debuts in Intel’s Penryn chips.

With the 2009 switch to digital-only TV broadcasts, the Federal Communications Commission decides to sell the 700-MHz spectrum that analog TV has been occupying. A Jan. 16, 2008 auction date is set, with mobile carriers like AT&T and Verizon expected to offer competitive bids. Google is also vying to be a major player in the deal, which is expected to generate over $10 billion.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore delivers the keynote address at the Embedded Systems Conference, calling on engineers to stop global warming. The former vice president asks engineers to design with efficiency and conservation in mind to improve the “grossly inefficient systems running our energy economy.” The climate crisis, Gore says, could be the impetus needed to inspire a new wave of electrical engineers.

Skilled foreign workers flood the offices of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services with requests for H-1B visas, reaching the 65,000-visa cap in just two days. In 2006, applications took two months to stack up. Congress is now working on immigration reform, and part of that includes possibly upping the cap to 115,000, as well as raising the limit on employment-based visas from 140,000 to 290,000 per year. Major tech companies favor the move, and the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) and the IEEE have openly supported it.

The International Trade Commission (ITC) bans U.S. imports of Qualcomm 3G wireless chips as well as the phones that use them. Rival company Broadcom Corp. alleged that Qualcomm infringed on power-management patents in its chips. In August, Qualcomm requests a presidential veto on the ban that is denied, and a stay of the ban on its chip imports is denied in September— although a U.S. Court of Appeals allows AT&T, Motorola, and Samsung to import their phones.

Matsushita claims to be the first company to begin volume production of 45-nm chips. The competition is on with IBM, Intel, TSMC, Texas Instruments, and others all racing to launch volume production of their own 45-nm chips.

The much-hyped Apple iPhone hits stores, and consumers prove the device’s touchscreen display and blanket Internet access are worth standing in line for. Apple sells 1 million phones by Sept. 10, even though Steve Jobs announces a price redux in early September. Apple cuts the price of the 8-Gbyte model by $200 and does away with the 4-Gbyte model. Generous Jobs offers a $100 store credit to those customers who paid full price for the phone.

Microsoft sets aside just over $1 billion for warranty repairs to the Xbox 360 after scores of customers receive the deadly “three flashing lights” error message. Despite technical difficulties, Xbox comes in second in sales to the Nintendo Wii, which sells 9 million units by October. Sony’s PlayStation 3, which was released the same time as Wii, finishes last in the gaming console wars with about 5 million units sold.

Blackouts halt production at Samsung’s NAND fabs in Korea. Some industry analysts predict the outages will give the memory chip market the boost it needs, after being in a slump for most of the year. Revenues, led by DRAM and NAND-type flash, were on a decline due to a drop in average selling prices (ASPs) prompted by an oversupply. The outages, coupled with demand for NAND from the iPhone as well as the holiday season, could get the market back on its feet.

Sprint announces plans to spend $5 billion building WiMAX networks to bring high-speed Internet to cities. The company plans to have networks up and running in Chicago, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., by the end of the year and commercial services available under its XOHM brand in 2008.

George Hotz, a 17- year-old college student from New Jersey, cracks the code that ties the iPhone to AT&T. The world’s first iPhone unlock enables the smart phone to work with a sim card from any other network provider. Hotz’s hack sparks a number of companies that claim to provide the unlocking service, turning up a host of legal issues still unresolved.

IBM announces two innovations signaling the beginning of computing’s atomic age. Its Almaden Research Center measures the ability to store a bit of data on a single atom, paving the way for harddisk drives that store up to 1000 times as much information than today’s drives, which use a million atoms to store a single bit of information. The company’s Zurich Research Lab demonstrates switching at the single-molecule level. With switches that small, processors could be scaled down to make a supercomputer on a chip the size of a speck of dust.

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Intel revamps its Xeon 7300 quad-core server processors just days before rival company AMD launches its Opteron processor. AMD releases its quad-core Opteron on Sept. 10, just 10 months after Xeon’s initial launch. A week later, to increase competition with Intel, AMD releases triplecore processors that offer fast speeds but lower prices than processors with four cores.

The U.S. House of Representatives passes its version of the Patent Reform Act of 2007, which focuses on minimizing patent litigation by making it harder to claim infringement on intellectual property. Big companies like Intel, Apple, and Microsoft hail the bill’s passage, but it isn’t likely that the Bush administration will sign off on the legislation.

Europe’s second-highest court upholds a 2004 antitrust ruling against Microsoft. The company allegedly abused its market power by adding a digital media player to Windows, undercutting Real Networks. The ruling could be a bad sign for other big tech companies like Apple, Intel, and Qualcomm, who are also under scrutiny in Europe.

Fairchild Semiconductor celebrates its 50th birthday. The company started the Silicon Valley sprawl after being founded in Palo Alto by the “Traitorous Eight.” These engineers left another firm that was started by William Shockley, one of the three original inventors of the transistor. Fairchild engineers birthed companies like Intel, AMD, and Xilinx. National Semiconductor owned Fairchild for 10 years before spinning it out again into its own company in 1997.

Two European scientists are awarded the 2007 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on the discovery of giant magnetoresistance (GMR), a property employed in hard-disk-drive storage. In 1988, Albert Fert of France and Peter Gruenberg of Germany described how particles used in data storage could get denser and still produce the electrical signals computers read as ones or zeros, enabling the shrinkage of disk drives.

Intel releases Penryn, the industry’s first line of 45-nm processors. The dual-core processors incorporate Intel’s HK+MG transistor design the company announced in January.

Sony starts selling its 11-in. organic light-emitting diode (OLED) TVs in Japan. The 3-mm thick screens boast high-res images and wide-angle views. The TVs are expected to eventually compete with LCD and plasma screens.

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