Software has become a spoiled brat grown fat suckling on chip industry innovation

Hardware technologies have provided an incredible innovation platform but it won't last forever. Where are the advances in software?
Written by Tom Foremski, Contributor

Daniela Hernandez at Wired, interviewed the founders of DropCam, which uses cheap webcams for remote monitoring systems. For some reason, and a very wrong reason, Wired's editors decided on this headline:

Software Is Still King. Hardware Is Just Along for the Ride | Wired Business 

It's so very wrong and I'll explain why, as the chip industry's largest trade show, Semicon West opens this week in San Francisco.

The Wired article article talks about a hardware "renaissance" but that software is "still king."

That could not be further from the truth but it is a good example of how little understood are the incredible accomplishments of the chip industry. And the headline reflects a popular misconception about software's role in the story of our modern society and in the relentless march of technology.

Software is important, it instructs the hardware, which makes it seem as if it fuels the extraordinary engine of innovation that drives technological progress. But don't confuse the driver of a car with the car's performance -- this is not the Flintstones.

The plain fact of the matter is that it is software that gets the free ride, and hardware in the form of faster, smaller, cheaper microprocessors is what's responsible for computer technology's relentless leaps in performance.

This is the innovation platform of our age. And it's the chip industry, not software that has raced to meet the promises that tech companies made in transforming so many industries and businesses. 

What other set of innovations continually doubles performance and slashes its own prices with such clockwork reliability? Without that progress our technology revolution would have stalled out decades ago.

Yet there's very little celebration or acknowledgement of the incredible innovation that continues to be made by the chip industry. 

Slivers of condensed high technologies…

Microprocessor chips are magical, alchemical creations wrought from the base material of sand, and transformed into tiny, shiny slivers of condensed high technologies, and far more valuable than gold.

["Condensations of technologies"  is apt because the manufacturing process includes vaporizing advanced materials so that they can be condensed into layers, atom by atom.]

And every two years the chip industry manages to innovate around problem issues called "showstoppers" to deliver double the performance and lower prices. The software industry has never managed to do that.  

Chips are incredibly difficult to make and require the most advanced and expensive manufacturing systems of our age. Semiconductor fabs cost a few hundred million dollars in the 1970s, now its closer to $8 billion. 

Smaller is faster

The chip industry's innovation comes from continually being able to shrink wiring and transistors into ever smaller geometries. Shorter connections between transistors equals faster performance because the electrons travel shorter distances. And smaller chips use less power, making mobile devices possible, and making each new generation of chips a little bit greener. 

Shrinking the size of chips means more per wafer and that leads to lower prices. This continually opens new markets as less expensive chips enable new types of products.  Low prices for digital electronics is essential in distributing the information age into the hands of billions of people. Can software do that? I don't think so. 

This process of shrinking chip geometries is what Moore's Law refers to in its observation of a doubling in computer performance over a two year cycle. It has absolutely nothing to do with advances in software technologies. 

Tickets please…

Software gets a free ride, it runs faster, better, without having done anything. And software developers are happy to ride on the improved performance of their code for no effort at all. They all ride free on the hard-won innovations developed by chip engineers. 

How can software be king when there's been no new technologies? Coding is turning into scripting, an etch-a-sketch of connected software frameworks lumbered with huge amounts of redundant code. There are no lean, mean, double-speed software technologies on the horizon. In fact, software developers have gotten lazy, and lazier, their code grows ever more bloated and inefficient because it can, because the hardware makes even badly written software run like a champ.

Software gets a free ride but the ride will soon be over. Moore's Law is slowing and before the end of this decade it will largely end its phenomenal 60 year-long reign. Software will have to provide the improvements in computing performance that hardware once did. 

A despotic ruler?

Software will eventually become king. But it has to change radically, or it will be a morbidly obese monarch, demanding ever higher taxes from the spent chip technologies on whose groaning backs it tries to build ever larger monuments  of faux progress.  

So far, there's alarming little to report in the way of breakthrough software technologies -- there's not even a gym membership.

Editorial standards