Reflections: On The Industry And Design

Oct. 21, 2002
With advances in the many technologies needed to compute, store, communicate, and display, the next 50 years promise to be even more amazing.

While I was relaxing at home one recent weekend, I noticed my daughter's fingers flicking like lightning across the keypad of her cell phone as she responded to a text message. At the same time, my son was playing one of his favorite video games on our 31-in. television. These two images caused me to reflect on my own childhood and what my family had for communications and entertainment. Well, at age 4, I really didn't have much need for communications in 1952. But you could basically get a rotary-dial telephone from "the phone company" in any color, as long as it was black. Entertainment for the well-equipped house of the '50s consisted of a black-and-white TV, an AM radio, and a monaural record player.

Today, phones come in all styles and colors, with wires or wireless, ranging from shirt-pocket-size portables to desktop multiline units. Home entertainment revolves around a DVD-based home theater with a 50-in. or larger viewing screen and one or more video game consoles. For music, AM-FM stereos with sound contouring enable you to adjust the audio in your living room to mimic any popular concert venue, while portable MP3 and CD players let you take your music with you, virtually anywhere, including underwater. Additionally, other entertainment (and work) resources in today's home might include a wireless network with several PCs and a PDA or two linked so that they can share a broadband high-bandwidth connection, and possibly an Internet-Protocol-based telephone to lower the cost of long-distance communications.

The electronics industry has made amazing progress over the five decades since Electronic Design sent out its first issue. These first 50 years have provided only an inkling of what's possible. With advances in semiconductor technology, software, design tools, and the many other technologies needed to compute, store, communicate, and display, the next 50 years promise to be even more amazing. Some future developments will be extensions of today's technology. But I predict that the majority of advanced devices/tools/technologies over the next half-century will be spawned from the creativity and determination of you, the electronics engineers, as well as researchers and other forward-thinkers.

Truthfully, I'm not totally sure what to expect, just as 50 years ago no one would have foreseen many of the basic tools or toys that we often take for granted today—the PC, the cell phone, the video gaming console, or the PDA. We can expect continued progress in the blending of computing and communications to provide seamless movement of information around the world. But as information moves more freely in our society, the chance of information misuse increases significantly. This means that new laws and safeguards must be implemented, or else we'll end up being overwhelmed by what we currently denigrate as spam. As high-bandwidth interfaces become commonplace, e-mail will change to video mail, and by 2050 instead of text and pictures, we'll have talking heads pitching their messages to us on holographic displays.

To bring about the next 50 years of change, thousands of minor developments and more than a few radical breakthroughs will occur, each allowing us to go forward and build faster, smarter systems that consume less power. (Does this sound familiar?) These are the unchanging aspects of the design challenge. What changes are the tools that we use and the actual products that we create. Moreover, the very nature of the design team is shifting. We have evolved from the design team working together in a central location to a totally distributed design team whose members span the globe.

System design turnaround times have also been compressed. Complex system design projects that took several years to implement in the past can now be done in a year or less. Also, over the next few decades, one-year design cycles will drop by about 25% every few years, until turnaround time is a limit of how quickly the semiconductor fabs can deliver a new ASIC.

To handle these shorter design cycles, the tools must be able to take on greater design complexity while providing simple user interfaces to make the designer's job easier. The tools also need to be "self-checking" so that designs will be flawless through the use of "correct-by-construction" approaches because design complexities will be so high that manual checking won't be viable.

In fact, design tools must eventually be so easy to use that non-EEs, like doctors and researchers, will be able to step up and define a specialized chip or system to meet their needs. It will be a long time before such tools are up to the task, but it will happen. You can count on it.

See associated photo.

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