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Moore’s Law and electronic heirlooms

April marked the 50th anniversary of Moore’s Law and the arrival of the Apple Watch. Clearly, the advances in semiconductor technology forecast by Gordon Moore enable Apple to pack so much functionality into a package so small. But Moore’s Law and a possible deceleration in semiconductor scaling may have unusual ramifications for consumer electronics devices in general and products like the Apple Watch in particular.

Consider that with the Apple Watch, Apple for the first time is getting into the luxury fashion business. Previously, an entry-level employee’s iPhone would be identical to the CEO’s. That’s no longer the case, as Will Oremus in Slate has pointed out. Now, the employee can buy an Apple Watch for a few hundred dollars while the CEO can spend $10,000 and up.

That brings up the question, who is going to spend upwards of $10,000 for a watch that will be obsolete in a couple of years? The gold case may retain its value, but the silicon inside will not. Serenity Caldwell at iMore offers the idea of a replaceable core—you take your $15,000 watch into the Apple store every 18 months for an upgrade. But I suspect the appeal of an expensive analog watch is the intricate, accurate—and timeless (meaning “already obsolete”)—internal mechanism and the craftsmanship that went into it.

In fact, makers of luxury analog brands don’t seem worried about competition from Apple. Jean-Claude Biver, president of LVMH’s watch division and CEO of its Tag Heuer brand, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying he doesn’t believe the Apple Watch will affect the sales of high-end mechanical watches, saying someone buys a $20,000 watch because it’s a piece of art—not to tell you the time. Nevertheless, Tag Heuer is hedging its bets and collaborating with Google and Intel on the development of a smart watch.

It will be interesting to see whether Apple can solve the silicon obsolescence problem and establish its watch as an heirloom that can be handed down from generation to generation. In fact, Apple might get some help from Moore’s Law. Writing in the April issue of IEEE Spectrum, Andrew “Bunnie” Huang says that as Moore’s Law slows, we can anticipate keeping electronics products for more than a few years. Consequently, we may focus more on fashion and packaging issues than on the technology inside. Although the idea of an heirloom laptop sounds preposterous today, he writes, that might not always be the case.

That’s an interesting perspective. But I think Moore’s Law has a ways to go. The semiconductor analyst David Kanter offers an interesting post in his real world technologies blog that describes how innovations such as strained silicon, high-k gate dielectrics (HfO2) and metal-gate electrodes, double-patterning, and FinFETs have brought us from 90 nm to where we are today, with Intel pursuing the 10-nm node. Going forward, he predicts, the industry will adopt quantum-well FETs (QWFETs), with Intel leading the way at 10 nm and others following at 7 nm.

And if the 5-nm node, achieved in a decade or two, represents a limit on planar scaling, we can increasingly adopt 3-D stacking. So I think it’s unlikely that anyone will be buying an heirloom laptop or smart watch any time soon.

Apple and other manufacturers would probably prefer it that way, as an heirloom passed on represents the loss of a sale. Meanwhile, it remains to be seen if companies can develop a customer base that’s willing to spend upwards of $10,000 every couple of years in pursuit of fashion and state-of-the-art technology.

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Rick Nelson
Executive Editor
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