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Forecasting a dead end for chips

Legendary microprocessor designer Ted Hoff says chip designers may soon find it impossible to keep reducing die size.

The 4004 microprocessor Intel

(Editor's note, 10:25 p.m. PDT: The original headline on this blog was altered to remove the word "subatomic" because its usage may not have been appropriate.)

TEL AVIV, Israel--One of Intel's legendary chip developers says that the computer industry may no longer be able to infinitely shrink microprocessor die size.

And if anyone should know, it's Marcian E. "Ted" Hoff.

The designer behind the 4004 chip, Intel's first microprocessor, Hoff says that a technical end of the road may soon be within sight.

"We are approaching atomic dimensions," Hoff said, adding that "5 or 10 nanometers is as small as we can get. And I haven't seen much to change my mind."

Intel's most advanced chips are at 45 nanometers, while 32-nanometer technology should be out sometime next year. But Hoff, Intel's 12th employee, whose technology breakthrough helped create the microcomputer industry, cautioned that before long, "progress may slow or stop someday."

Ted Hoff Silicom Ventures

This shouldn't come as a complete surprise. Hoff and other Intel officials have warned for years that they would eventually run up against a technical wall they might not be able to hurdle.

He said that development is getting much harder and that Intel is going to have to do some novel things to maintain the same technical momentum. Talking about previous generations of Intel microprocessors, Hoff said that "each one has been a variation of the previous one. So, essentially, we're running our computers on glorified 8088s."

Of course, Intel has been wringing its hands about Moore's Law for quite some time, and still the company manages to pull through.