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What Fairchild, AMD, Actel and Jurassic Park Have in Common

What Fairchild, AMD, Actel and Jurassic Park Have in Common
by John East on 08-26-2019 at 6:00 am


In the early stories of this series  (Weeks three though six), I talked about what I believe were the three seminal events in the history of the semiconductor:  Shockley’s invention of the transistor, Noyce’s invention of the integrated circuit, and Intel’s 1971 —  the introductions  of the first commercially successful DRAM, EPROM, and microprocessor.  I was taking some poetic license when I talked about Intel because that wasn’t really an “event”.  It was a series of events that took place over a year or two.

(It should be said here that, as is true in pretty much all inventions and product introductions, if the whole story is told,  scores of people and companies would join in getting credit.  But — I have to stay within my word limit or Dan won’t print my stories.)

Given that I’ve already gotten away with a loose definition of “event”, I’m now going to talk about a fourth seminal “event”:  A decade long event  — one that changed the industry and left us old guys scratching our heads wondering what had just happened.

When I first joined AMD the marching orders were: “Building blocks of ever increasing complexity!!”  It made sense.  For most of the ‘60s the IC market was comprised of TTL “small scale integration” products  — gates and flip flops.  (See week #8 of this series.  Texas Instruments and the TTL Wars) We called those “SSI”.  In the late ‘60s “Medium Scale Integration” (MSI) emerged.  Companies that bought gates and flip flops invariably used them to make a generally accepted array of larger elements:  multiplexors, decoders, register files, adders, shift registers, counters, and ALUs were on the top of that list.  Those functions became the industry’s standard MSI products. Every company who was designing electronic equipment would use products out of that group. So  –  as we progressed along the Moore’s law curve,  we knew what to do with the additional gates.  Instead of selling gates and flip flops, we sold decoders and multiplexors.  More progress along the density curve led to “Large Scale Integration”  (LSI).  AMD’s building block concept called for defining generic blocks that could be used by a variety of different customers in a variety of different applications.  When AMD got to the Large Scale Integration point on the Moore’s Law curve, they took their best shot with the AMD 2901. The 2901 was a four bit wide slice of a processor’s Arithmetic-Logic Unit. It hit the bull’s eye!  Thanks John Mick. Thanks Tom Wong!  Thanks John Springer!!

The 2901 was a big success commercially.  Just as was true of the MSI building blocks, you could pretty much use the 2901 in any kind of electronic system.  But, would it always be that easy? Were there plenty of products like the 2901 at hand? And  — looking ahead —  was there a commonly accepted set of VLSI  (Very large scale integration)  products that could be used anywhere when we got to that point on the curve?  Not really.  There were a few products, but it was a much shorter list.  Microprocessors and memories could be used everywhere.  They were VLSI.  Gate arrays as well —  but gate arrays were custom products by the time they shipped. What else?  Not much.  “Building blocks of ever increasing complexity” was reaching the end of its rope.  As time passed and IC densities increased, customers ceased wanting to use building blocks to build their own systems.   When densities got to the point that the entire system could be put on a single chip, then that’s what the customers wanted.  Why go through the hassle of designing the system when you could just go out and buy it?

So  — the game had changed.  From the IC house’s point of view, instead of designing general purpose building blocks that could be used for pretty much any system,  IC houses had to pick a particular system and then design chips specifically for that.  One chip for switches. One for ISDN.  One for ethernet. One for FDDI.  Etc.  That was problematic on two fronts.  First, which systems would you pick?  If you picked FDDI and ISDN (As I did) and those markets never went anywhere (As those two didn’t), then you’d eat the development costs and your sales would languish because you wouldn’t have the products that the customers wanted.  Second,  how would you learn enough about the specialized market you were going after to be able to define and design a good product?  After all networking experts, for example, by and large preferred working at networking companies – not at chip companies.

From the customers’ point of view, by the time 1988 rolled around they were demanding microprocessors,  memories,  and gate arrays.  Customers could use gate arrays to design their own LSI chips.  They liked that!! And virtually all systems use memories and microprocessors.  The Japanese saw this coming. They coined the term “master slice”  (for gate arrays).  Then they embarked on an effort to conquer the market for the three M’s:  Memories,  Microprocessors,  and Master Slices.  It seemed for a time that they might succeed.  Basically, their plan was to dominate the business of manufacturing ICs.  The good news is that they didn’t succeed.  (The bad news is that Taiwan and Korea eventually did.)

Coincident with this was the advent of the foundry.  To really understand this, you should read Daniel Nenni’s Fabless:  the Transformation of the Semiconductor Industry.  Semiconductor companies no longer had to understand Iceo or work functions, or mobile ions or minority carrier lifetimes or any of the many other time-honored problems that had existed since the days that I was a hands-on engineer.  Those problems would be handled by some man or woman in Taiwan whom you had never met and would never need to meet.  The world had changed. In 1980 the typical successful semiconductor CEO understood semiconductor physics, fab processing, and transistor level circuit design.  By 1990 that set of knowledge was already rendered nearly useless.  By 1990 you needed to understand the architectures of very specialized, complex systems and the end markets of these systems.  Were there exceptions besides the three Ms?  Yes. A few analog functions and programmable logic.

Today I’m spending quite a bit of my time with semiconductor start-ups.  Over the past three years I’ve been working with Silicon Catalyst.  Silicon Catalyst is an incubator who incubates only semiconductor companies.  That has allowed me to get a good look at dozens of start-ups in the field. My take?  Successful semiconductor CEOs today often know little or nothing about semiconductors per se.  Moreover, they don’t even care!!  Nor should they!!! They know about the market they’re trying to serve.  They understand the hardware, firmware, software and applications related to their chosen market.  Building blocks of ever increasing complexity went out the window a long time ago.  Today the call is for a complete solution to an existing problem.  Let TSMC worry about how to make the things. The change in the attitudes of customers caused a corresponding change in the strategies of the traditional IC companies.  In the case of AMD, the thrust moved away from “Building blocks of ever increasing complexity” to “High performance computing is transforming our lives”.  It was a big change.  Companies that don’t embrace changes wither away.  In the case of AMD,  they made the changes well.  The stock market now pegs their value at north of $30 billion!!!

Congratulations to Lisa Su,  her staff, and the entire AMD team!!!  Great work!!!

Next week: Joining Actel

Pictured:  A trio of dinosaurs. (There would have been four, but I couldn’t find a picture of Pete)

See the entire John East series HERE.

# Texas Instruments, John Mick, Tom Wong,  John Springer,  Daniel Nenni,  Silicon Catalyst, Lisa Su




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