What really drives Moore’s Law

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Gordon Moore on a fishing trip

Gordon Moore on a fishing trip (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Moore’s Law” is one of the more widely understood concepts in computer hardware. Many ordinary people, including those with little or no understanding of what goes in to making an integrated circuit, understand the idea that computer hardware becomes better (and cheaper) in some sort of geometric way. But, actually, the rate and reasons for this “law” have been in flux ever since it was first proposed in 1965.

As part of the very first baby steps on my road to getting a PhD I have to prepare a literature review and so that means demonstrating an understanding of the processes that mean while Gordon E. Moore‘s predictions about increased transistor density have broadly held-up, the era of ever faster single (or even small number) processor computers is decisively over.

So I have read this paper – Establishing Moore’s Law – which gives some interesting perspectives on what we now refer to as “Moore’s Law”.

The term “Moore’s Law”: Although coined by Carver Mead of CalTech the term was popularised by Robert Noyce, Moore’s co-founder at Intel, in an article in the Scientific American in 1977.

The original formulation was a prediction based on the need of IC makers to compete: In 1965, when Moore first formulated what we now call his “law”, it was actually a prediction based on the need of manufacturers of integrated circuits – then a relatively new and experimental technology – to compete with the manufacturers of single electronic components. His prediction was that manufacturers would need to radically cut the costs and increase the complexity of their products if they were to successfully compete.

The ‘law’ broke down in the late 1960s : From around 1965 to 1969 the ‘law’ didn’t work in the sense that the growth in chip speed and complexity did not match the prediction. In Moore’s view this was because manufacturers did not produce chips “whose complexity came close to the potential limit”.

The ‘law’ is not based on any fundamental character of ICs but on a wide interplay of technology and commercial factors: This is the overall theme of the paper – the early gains were based on the need for ICs to compete at all, then came gains founded on the introduction of computer aided design and then from a state sponsored drive by Japanese companies to gain a foothold in the market (in fact they came to dominate the market in memory technology). Then came the Microsoft-Intel alliance and on to the present…