Friday, December 21, 2007

Top 10 tech trends likely to make waves in 2008

It is quite a task to predict what the New Year has in store for us. My friend Radhika Nallayam at CIOL and I, present you a list of technology trends likely to make waves in 2008.

1. Greening of IT

Data centers of today are witnessing very high power consumption and cooling requirements. Skyrocketing energy consumption surely poses a challenge to the environment. Besides this, the hazardous effect of e-waste is also a major environmental concern in today’s IT sector. (It is estimated that more than 800 million PCs will be replaced during 2007 and 2012)

As a result, the IT world has started realizing the need for ‘greening of IT’ to minimize the harmful effects of energy expulsion from IT operations and data centers. (Green Data Center report from Symantec Corp. states that nearly three-fourths of respondents of the survey stated they have interest in adopting a strategic green data center initiative).

The ‘green IT’ movement has already succeeded in creating environmental responsibility among major IT vendors across the globe.

2. Is 2008 going to be the year of Linux?

It’s been years since we started talking about the ‘year of Linux’. Finally, good news for open source buffs? Well, we really can’t predict that. But, there is a hope that the coming time could be a real turning point in the history of open source, making 2008 the year of Linux on desktop. Though Linux will not be a direct replacement for Windows, we are definitely going to see a major increase in the number of end-users adopting Linux.

PC giant Dell, at the beginning of this year, gave us a positive sign by introducing Linux computers. A number of other vendors are also betting high on Linux. Ubuntu has already received recognition among mobile users and server market. Linux Desktop, though gradually, is gaining momentum. At this point in time, we can only wait and watch the game!

3. Will Vista be the OS to own?

When Microsoft launched Vista, Gartner’s analysts suggested ignoring the new operating system until 2008 and not to rush into upgrading. So, it’s time for us to rethink. Lots of users are still waiting for the first service pack to arrive before upgrading from Windows XP. And, hopefully, SP1 is likely to arrive in the beginning of 2008.

Vista definitely offers some advanced security feature and more polished interface. But due to some concerns related to application compatibility and more hardware requirements, consumers, till now, were reluctant to switch to Vista.

However, some recent surveys show that a lot of companies are now willing to upgrade to Vista. Microsoft expects Vista to be accountable for 85 percent of operating system sales in fiscal 2008 compared with 15 percent for Windows XP. Majority of the consumers will, sooner or later, have to migrate to Vista. Well, that could be in 2008.

4. IPTV sees big surge in popularity

IPTV (Internet Protocol Television) is already in spotlight. It has opened up new possibilities for consumers, service providers and content providers. From a mere technology concept, IPTV has completed the first stage and has become a real service. In some countries, it is almost in the mass-market stage. IPTV is considered to be one of the most highly visible services to emerge as part of the development of next-generation networks (NGN).

There are many more questions to be answered pertaining to the business model, pricing, packaging and the technology itself. But, the coming year is definitely going to see more developments in the IPTV space.

One thing worth mentioning, which may prove to be crucial for IPTV to reach its market potential, is the devlopments of standards for IPTV. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) recently announced the first set of global standards for IPTV. So, there are definitely some good news for us. And, no doubt , as long as the demand for high-quality personalized content exists among the consumers, IPTV will not struggle to reach new horizons.

5. Will 802.11n arrive?

The 802.11n, the latest in the set of WLAN standards, comes with truly high speeds i.e. 4-5 times faster than 802.11g and fifty times faster than .11b! It also offers better operating distance comparing to the current wireless networks. Wow! This is really something the enterprises would love to invest in.

There is no doubt that 802.11n is well positioned to redefine wireless networking. But, would the new standard finally arrive in 2008? Ratification of the new standards is been delayed for quite a long time now and the users are really keen to see the faster version of Wi-Fi, without any more delay.

However, experts predict that ratification won’t happen overnight and it’s going to take some more time. Though some Wi-Fi vendors( Cisco, Aruba, Trapeze) have already launched 802.11n products, technology installations may happen only in the middle of 2008.

6. Short-range wireless technologies that will create a buzz

Short-range wireless technology is not just about Bluetooth anymore. New entrants like High-speed Bluetooth, Wireless USB and ZigBee are getting traction too. Demand for high data transfer rates has increased over the years with the increase in video and audio content on portable devices like mobile phones, laptops as well as on multimedia projectors and television sets.

Though high-speed Bluetooth is in its primary stage of development, it is expected to be 100 times faster than the current technology. This next-generation Bluetooth will hopefully hit the market in 2008.

Wireless USB is targeting 1Gbps throughput. Vendors have already introduced wireless USB hubs, adapters and laptops in the market. However, wide adoption of the technology depends on how soon it is going to be embedded into digital cameras, camcoders, MP3 players etc.

ZigBee is the wireless connection used by sensors and control devices. It is expected to find traction in commercial building automation in 2008.

7. No end in sight for high-definition (HD) war

Is the war between Blu-ray and HD DVD high-definition video formats never ending? Well, there, definitely, is an end. But that may not be in 2008 Analysts in the industry predict that the high-definition war may last for another year and a few months. There is a strong market position for both the standards currently and this makes it difficult to predict the winner.

Meanwhile, there has been no improvement in the sales of both the technologies this year as consumers still feel both Blu-ray and HD DVD are expensive.

On the other hand, Toshiba recently introduced comparatively low priced HD DVD players. This initiative definitely poses a challenge for Blu-Ray companies. To cope with this, they will have to cut down the hardware prices of Blu-ray. If that happens, the war will continue for some more time.

8. Shift from magnetic to solid-state hard drives

At present, the market is dominated by magnetic hard drives. But the future seems to be of solid-state hard drives as magnetic hard drives have limited data transfer speed. Solid-state hard drives are based on flash memory and is much faster memory solution. They also have advantages such as low noise and low power consumption. High pricing is the primary hindering factor for solid-state hard drives to become mainstream.

As long as the demand for high-quality personalized content exists among the consumers, IPTV will not struggle to reach new horizons.

Major players like Seagate are betting high on solid-state technology and have plans to offer it next year. Solid-state hard discs are likely to be more popular in the laptop market. If prices fall down, we can see a slow shift happening from magnetic to solid-state hard drives in 2008.

9. Is 2008 going to be a banner year for wireless?

We no more worry about the clutter of wires. Offices have gone wireless. Cities are going wireless. All portable devices have embedded wireless technologies. We are moving fast towards a ‘wire-free’ world. So, 2008, beyond doubt, is going to see much more technology developments.

Though the ‘wireless’ world won’t be a true reality so soon, the need for seamless mobility and freedom is surely going to drive more wireless technology advancements.

The upcoming 802.11n will redefine enterprise networking in the coming year. Fixed Mobile Convergence (FMC) will tie fixed and mobile networks to deliver enhanced user experience. 2008 is expected to be the year of Mobile WiMax as well. Above all these, 2008 will probably witness open access to all networks, which in turn will open up more opportunities.

10. The ‘iPhone mania’ to continue

iPhone rates as the most memorable new product for 2007. Yes, it literally shook the mobile phone world in 2007. Now, doubtlessly, companies would love to follow Apple’s path by introducing similar products. So, 2008 is certainly going to see mobile phones with more and more web services and multimedia functionalities integrated into it. So, 2008 could very well be a year of ‘iPhone-like’ products from Apple’s rivals.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Applied Materials CEO on semicon sustainability and energy management

"The Indian semiconductor policy is really ground breaking. Hopefully, it will build great business." These comments from Michael R. Splinter, president and CEO, Applied Materials, were enough to indicate how much the Indian semiconductor policy, announced recently by the government of India, has caught the attention of global semicon majors.

Mike Splinter was delivering his lecture at the Thought Leader Series organized by the India Semiconductor Association (ISA), where he also highlighted the needs of sustainability and energy management from a global perspective.

According to him, some things never changed in the semiconductor industry, such as: technical innovation being the most viable lever for productivity, end of optical lithography being imminent, no imminent change in fab economics ($/die), growth in complexities of products and applications.

"Through all of these times, the Moore's Law has persisted. The complexity of products have increased," he added. Another thing that hadn't changed was the growing need for sustainable practices.

Citing statistics, he said that the semiconductor industry was growing 5 percent this year, while the semiconductor equipment industry was growing at 3-5 percent during 2007. "Memory continues to grow very rapidly. NAND flash is a killer app," Splinter noted.

India, according to him, has a major role to play in the semiconductor domain. India's strengths lie in world class IC design and R&D capability, growing market for consumer electronics (CE), and an increasing need to address both global and industry challenges -- in terms of sustainability and energy use.

Challenge of sustainability
Touching on the growing importance of sustainability, Splinter cited The Economist, which reported that $70bn had been spent globally in clean tech research and funding. Further, the IPCC reported that the evidence of human caused global warming was equivocal.

While economic growth was driving demand and the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries were accelerating it, there was also an increasing use of chips in consumer electronics products. This translated into an increasing use of energy. "All of these factors, together, make sustainability even more challenging," added Splinter.

Splinter gave an example of LCD TVs, which are likely to grow 65 percent this year. Now, 90 percent of the power in LCD TVs goes into the backlight. If new technologies could be developed, those would certainly assist in saving more power. Another example was that of servers, laptops and TVs together accounting for 8 percent of global power consumption. That's a lot of power, if the global power is estimated at 5TW or so. It needs to be reduced as well.

So what is the waste and energy impact of consumer electronics? For starters, there are increasing energy consumption and recycling challenges. Next, manufacturing requires a lot of water, energy and materials. Another impact is the waste management within the manufacturing value chain. Splinter said, "The environmental impact can be reduced by clean tech products and sustainable manufacturing."

Need for energy efficient chips
Energy definitely needs to grow faster than the global economy. There is also a need to think about the environment and waste management. There is a need to increase the energy efficiency in chips, instead of solely focusing on performance.

Splinter said the time had come to take major steps, such as producing energy efficient chips. Applied Materials itself will be working on reducing the energy consumption in all of its practices. The semiconductor equipment maker will also be adopting clean energy in all of its facilities. The time has come for all to work together on energy use, Splinter added.

On solar, he noted that it had not yet managed to achieve scale. However, Germany had strongly pushed it, providing manufacturing incentives. "The scales are now starting to happen in Europe, especially, Germany," he added. "There is pretty good motivation and incentive to deploy solar here, in India, as well."

Indian hardware policy to address infrastructure issues

Following the success of India's semiconductor policy, the government of India is well on its way to announce a new hardware manufacturing policy, hopefully sometime this month.

According to M. Madhavan Nambiar, Additional Secretary, Ministry of Communications & Information Technology, Department of Information Technology, the hardware policy should be coming shortly, where, the government is looking to address infrastructure related issues.

Speaking with him on the sidelines of the Thought Leader Series organized by the India Semiconductor Association (ISA), he said the hardware policy would still take some time. "As a part of it, we are looking at IT investment regions." These would be set up in 40km areas, and each region would be an entire ecosystem in itself.

Nambiar added: "We are also looking at very good public-private partnerships. We have to develop the manpower." The Department is working with the Labour Ministry and other organizations in order to set up skill development units. It is necessary for skiils to keep pace with technology.

The to-be-announced hardware policy will also be looking at taxes, etc. "It is a recommendation that we are making," he said. "For India to be able to attract investments, we nust ensure that we are the best in class."

Touching upon the semiconductor policy, he said it was important that this policy was pro-active and friendly. "We need to see how best to provide comfort levels to those investing," Nambiar said.

It was necessary to have a strong semiconductor industry in India, as all leading countries, such as the USA, China, Taiwan and Japan had equally strong semiconductor industries. There has since been lot of interest in fabs and ecosystem units, and some of those were in the process of being set up.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Does India need fabs? Worth a try!

A friend asked me whether India needs a fab. My answer quick and short was no! While it would be enchanting to see India join the global "fab club" or even have Indians comment "real men own fabs" for a change, I just don't see the ecosystem -- as people like to call it -- there. Maybe, once the odd fabs come up, that would develop as well. However, it can be quite some time away.

India, as most of us know, are strong in embedded and SoC related work. We are strong in design services. We are good at playing to our strengths. We should continue to do so. Note that we are not yet a one-stop design shop, though many people seem to see it that way. This is not exactly software and services!

However, to move up the so-called semicon value chain, India needs to do high-end designs and product development. The last one is currently the problem area.

How many Indian firms are involved in product development? Can you name them? Do you have the names on your fingertips? Most importantly, are those aimed for captive consumption (within the country) or are those serving the global markets? What are the product differentiators?

Right! Let's get back to the fab business. I asked in a earlier piece that whether everyone are aware of the kind of investment that is required for a fab. Do people even have an idea how long would it take for a fab to break even?

First, the investment. The fab is not going to be a small building built on some piece of land. If it's going to be a 300mm fab, the expenses are going to be huge. Let's keep this easy. For starters, there is going to be a fixed cost for maintaining the day-to-day running of a fab. That itself is going to be huge.

Two, most of the fab work would be automated. A fab won't exactly be hiring numbers running well over thousands. Even if huge numbers were hired, do we have people in the country with experience of working in green rooms? Let's assume there are!

Next, there are several other processes involved in developing wafer out of silicon. Do we have people with that kind of experience? Let's again assume that there are. Again, the operating costs for maintaining such personnel would be quite high.

Three, let's get down to the equipment required for a fab. That's going to be really expensive. Most importantly, all of it has to be in place, running, before the fab actually goes live. Next, a fab can't survive for long if it rests on using certain technologies. It has to use all possible latest technologies. Again, getting those would be expensive.

Finally, the wafers coming out have to be world-class and the yield, high, rather, very high. Those should be able to serve multiple product needs as well -- niche and vogue. Oh yes, the fab has to serve the global market. So, do add the marketing costs as well.

How long will it take for such a fab to break-even? Maybe, three to five years. Add the fact that technologies and process geometries would have also progressed a lot by that time. Which means, all of those need to be added on to the fab.

Well, it's worth a challenge. India is betting big on semicon. Let's have those fabs along with the fabless folks. We'll know who stands where, and whether India really has the capability to move up the semiconductor value chain.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Solar and wind solutions, micro fuel cells as energy alternatives

Precisely! That's the way the future of energy would likely be, should the industry manage to pull it off. These folks are really working hard to develop alternative energy sources to power a whole lot of equipment and devices.

The other day, we were discussing energy, when the subject of fuel cells cropped up. With electronics items and other equipment constantly undergoing design changes, thereby putting even more demand on battery power. Several alternative energy solutions are constantly being developed.

In fact, Motorola reports to have successfully conducted a year-long wind- and solar-powered cell site at its Swindon R&D facility in the UK. The trial concluded that an optimized solar and wind solution can generate enough power to drive a mid-sized base station (BTS) plus ancillaries. The next step would be a commercial customer trial using a six-carrier BTS cell site, being implemented in the first half of 2007.

I believe, nearly all mobile phone manufacturers, including Motorola, are also developing solar-powered handsets.

Coming back to power, the existing battery chemistries are constantly challenged to maintain performance levels or maybe, extend beyong the existing levels. While solar and wind solutions are among the options, fuel cells and even micro fuel cells are also in the fray.

Now, Frost & Sullivan's report titled World Micro Fuel Cell Market for Industrial Portable Devices, finds that the market is likely to produce 75 million units by 2013, demonstrating a high market growth rate due to a ramp-up in commercialization. The micro fuel cell market for industrial portable devices has gained a boost with the significant growth of the heavy-duty device markets.

The report says that fuel cells for such devices should be able to operate safely for long periods under inclement weather and dusty conditions. They must be resistant to high shock and vibration, while surviving drops on hard surfaces as well.

The market is addressing the fuel cell standard concern by forming groups within prominent international standards organizations such as the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), dealing with electrical, electronic and related technologies.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

India's semicon policy takes off

Close on the heels of the historic Indian semicon policy announced earlier this year comes the news that Hindustan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation (HSMC) would be setting up a semicon foundry in India partnering with Infineon Technologies for CMOS licences. It's no surprise to see Infineon among the early movers as Infineon has been present in India for quite a while now.

This is excellent news as far as the Indian semiconductor industry is concerned. I remember the day the India Semiconductor Association (ISA) was formed in Bangalore in early November 2004. The ISA is a very young industry body and all kudos to it for having taken forward the Indian industry so very well.

Congratulations are also due to Honourable minister, Dayanidhi Maran for having the foresight and for believing in the semiconductor industry.

Not only would the semicon industry boost India's GDP in the coming years, the policy should also see India emerging as a destination of choice for manufacturing of high-tech products in the future.

This January, while attending the VLSI conference in Bangalore, I had the pleasure of learning about the various incentives some of the state governments, such as those of Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal have to offer to investors.

Other state governments should come forward as well and make India's dream of becoming a semicon giant a success and help the semicon policy really take off.

Following HSMC's announcement, we have now come to expect more such announcements in the near future. All of this really augurs well for India. It will also change the global perception that India is the destination for software and outsourcing.

We can do it. Time to show the world. Well done ISA. Well done Minister. And well done HSMC and Infineon