Commentary: Moore's Law--alive and well

While "impossible" leaps in technology will continue to happen at least through 2011, they won't necessarily trigger corresponding growth in the IT market.

4 min read
By Tom Austin, Gartner Analyst

Moore's Law describes the process by which the seemingly impossible became commonplace, the IT industry grew massively, and opportunities for breakthroughs and expansion arose in many markets.

Gartner expects similar developments over the next 10 years, but at different rates.

Gordon Moore, one of the co-founders of Intel, in 1968, gave voice to the law in 1965. The famous semiconductor-industry axiom holds that the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits doubles about every 18 to 24 months at a fixed cost.

Moore's Law has certainly stood the test of time: The number of transistors on a single chip has increased more than 18,000 times, from 2,300 in 1971 to

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42 million on today's Pentium 4 processor. So the law is alive and well, and scientists keep developing new ways of working around known limits in chip lithography.

Since 1959, the IT industry has profited enormously from the capabilities of the integrated circuit. In keeping with Moore's Law, it has seen numerous market breakthroughs, such as the explosive growth of PCs, the proliferation of microcontrollers in cars, the move to digital camera technology and the cell phone revolution, to name just a few.

Software vendors, such as Microsoft, build their plans based on assumptions about the hardware--such as CPUs, memory and networks--that they expect to become available in five or more years. In this area, the "impossible" will likely continue to unfold, per Moore's Law, through at least 2011.

Gartner is less optimistic about explosive IT industry market growth over the same period. That kind of growth will likely occur unevenly, missing some markets while hitting others. Further reductions in the cost of PCs, workstations or network switches, for example, are unlikely to dramatically change the shape of those markets. Other markets, such as storage area networks, will demonstrate explosive growth over the next decade.

Gartner is pessimistic about Moore's Law fueling major market breakthroughs, at least through 2006. Breakthroughs--what Gartner calls "discontinuities"--represent more than just massive growth. They disrupt, destabilize and often overturn markets, vendors and business models. Discontinuities typically have the following characteristics:

 They offer a new value proposition
 They're aimed at a new class of buyer
 They target a new market
 They're supported by a new value chain
 They're delivered at lower cost
 They result in lower profit margins
 They're available through a new distribution channel

Through 2006, Gartner expects that no major, new discontinuity will displace IT market leaders. On the other hand, ample opportunities exist for both entrepreneurs and established businesses. Gartner expects significant growth--and major new opportunities--during the next five years in most IT segments. For example, opportunities abound in software applications, middleware and services. It's just that none of them look like they will be major discontinuities.

Beyond 2006 is another matter. The wireless, wearable computer world will arrive by 2007. One major hurdle to wireless and mobile adoption has consistently been size. Continued reduction in chip size with increased power will add to functionality, reduce the all-important physical size of a device, and enable applications beyond the limits of today's handheld and mobile devices.

Consumer appliances will undergo many changes, per Moore's Law. Home appliances will become smarter. Every manner of common appliance will begin "thinking for itself" once appliances are enhanced with embedded chips.

Beyond 2008, embedded processing power will provide the second step in achieving the "supranet" by enabling objects and places to sense, compute and communicate. Supranet is a Gartner term describing the emerging ubiquitous network infrastructure that links the "e-world" (electronic devices such as computers, phones, televisions and cameras) and the "p-world" (the physical world that includes paper, people, houses and vehicles).

As for the end of Moore's Law, one recent prediction has it coming in 2020 ("The Age of Spiritual Machines," by Ray Kurzweil). A few others have predicted its demise, but the date keeps getting pushed further and further into the future.

(For a related commentary on what Bell Labs is doing in advanced semiconductor technology, see Gartner.com.)

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