IT, IC’s, and the Cambrian Explosion

I recently came across two articles, the first by accident, and the second because I was looking for something like it in response to the first.

On LinkedIn’s equivalent of a blog space, Rob Norman has posted a piece regarding the widely held perception that most of the novel applications of computing technology that appear each year at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) are low quality wasted efforts (my very terse interpretation of his comments).

In July of 2012 Peter Vander Auwera (aka Petervan) published an article on his normal WordPress blog space writing quite elegantly about a few of the similarities between the computing or IC product explosion and the Cambrian Explosion.

I think that Rob Norman’s article suggests an opportunity to expand on Petervan’s. Those who study the Cambrian fossil record tell us that it was enabled by the relatively sudden rise in atmospheric oxygen, and that most of the new life forms that emerged, did not last long. Nature was permitting a great many mutations to succeed long enough to leave their mark in the record, and yet ultimately fail and disappear with no apparent surviving progenitor species. Experimentation in life forms into the void created by the enormous and quite sudden expansion in the potential volume or capacity of the biosphere raced along seemingly without the more typical competition for survival that was the norm both before and after the Cambrian Period.

I have written previously about Moore’s Law, and the flawed understanding that most people in IT have concerning it. I pointed out that what Gordon Moore actually observed was a least cost chip phenomenon, and not what happens at the high cost leading edge of integrated circuit (IC) development, which is what most people are talking about when they make reference to his law. It is, as Moore pointed out 51 years ago, the explosion in extremely inexpensive digital power that has enabled IC or what we now usually embedded computing applications to explode. And, as I have observed in previous writings, the IC explosion crossed some critical thresholds about 15 years ago, which began to create an enormous unused digital capacity due to the electronic component counts in least cost IC’s having become many orders of magnitude greater than what is required by the average product design.

Thus, adding to Petervan’s article and metaphor, I would observe that there is a strong analogy that can be made between the spike in atmospheric oxygen the enabled the Cambrian explosion, and the spike in unused IC capacity that has enabled the seeming insanity that is routinely put on display at CES, about which Rob Norman is now commenting.

The silliness of the embedded computing explosion may last a long time. Much depends on to what extent least cost IC component counts continue to rise. The near term demise of Moore’s Law has been predicted many times over the past three decades. Issues that seemed insurmountable, but which were overcome as needed, have included recurring challenges posed by heat, pin counts, the speed limitations of the semiconductor materials being used, and the enormous capital costs associated with IC production. I am sure I have missed a couple of objections.

Clearly, the market driven pressure to experiment and attempt to produce survivable IC enabled product innovations is incessant. But, unlike the experience that new life forms faced during the Cambrian’s expansion in occupiable niches for life, experiments in digital product forms immediately run into the very severe existential test of having to find willing buyers immediately.  Product silliness is very short lived, even though the entertainment factor available to the curmudgeon strolling across the CES floor is perhaps a very long lived theatrical opportunity.

2 thoughts on “IT, IC’s, and the Cambrian Explosion

  1. Craig,

    It’s never going to be my inclination to post immediately. I’m inclined to indulge myself in the opportunity to debate the point with you.

    I don’t think the analogy is perfect.

    During the Cambrian era you had “fuel” added to a chaotic system, the results being fairly predictable.

    To perfect the analogy, you need to assume that the market is perfectly chaotic. It’s not. Everyone has an agenda. If every participant in the market were equally “powerful” (not sure how to measure that), it’s possible the agendas might all cancel out and you’d end up with something approaching a chaotic system. That’s not the case.

    I’d posit that the Pareto principal rules when you’re talking about foundation technologies, hence Intel’s agenda, over time, dominates. They express their agenda, for better or for worse, using two tools: MDF (market development funds) and PDG (product development groups).

    The first is self-explanatory. This is a company that can pour marketing money into segments they care about in order to “juice” them. In some cases the visible rationale for the funds is advertising — the desire to put the “Intel Inside” logo onto products. The real rationale, however, is to provide engineering support to those partners so new SKUs are adopted in a timely fashion. Is it any wonder that Intel can announce a new package and it’s primary channel partners are able, on that same day, to show new products using that package? This is MDF working at its best.

    Or worst if you’re one of Intel’s competitors and you’ve been thinking about talking to the Justice Department (ain’t willing to be quoted on this one!!!!).

    The other way in which the company expresses its agenda is by “seeding” the market. There are times when they spot opportunities they know will drive the sale of Intel content — they’re term for processors — but are frustrated that the market, as a whole, isn’t driving the opportunity fast enough.

    They have enough horsepower to engage in a bit of Keynesian stimulus and they have two ways to do it. The first, Intel Capital, is relatively innocuous. They run the world’s largest institutional investment firm and it includes multiple funds that serve various sectors and geographies. One can safely assume that ICAP does operate at arm’s-length from day-to-day management and is quite disciplined about the structure of it’s investments. On that front, you might assume that ICAP is merely an effort to put Intel’s massive capital reserves to work on behalf of its shareholders in an unbiased fashion.

    Except much of the deal flow arises internally. The best way to get funded by ICAP is introduction and sponsorship from within the company and that obviously biases the dealflow. Management is looking to ICAP as a means to fund third-parties where there is “synergy”.

    The other tool is something I’ve commented on previously. There are times when Intel will deploy a portion of its marketing budget, form engineering teams and assign them to prospective clients. When I commented on a prior post I mentioned the old Automotive Products Group which had been tasked to help the industry adopt Intel Content. That’s hardly the only effort of this kind.

    Given that Intel’s competitors don’t have the same type of financial horsepower, I’d propose that this ecosystem isn’t entirely chaotic.

    And that raises an interesting question, because you are correct. There’s a massive amount of unused capacity — there always has been (thirty years ago there were a lot of PCs sitting on shelves).

    If you think Intel is really very good, then you have to ask whether this excess capacity isn’t being installed deliberately to support their longer term mission. If you’re not willing to give them that type of credit, then you should just assume they have the ability to toss a lot of money around to create “pull” to support quarterly and annual sales objectives.

    I suspect the answer is a bit of both.


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Bob, good points all around. My initial thought was to post some sort of counter to Rob Norman’s article, as I thought it missed some critical aspects of the underlying reality. The Cambrian Explosion metaphor for the impact of Moore’s Law is an old one, and not my own. I doubt very seriously that Petervan was the first to make it either. Like most metaphors, it has some issues if you try to go too far with it, so your point on that score is accepted as a given.

    You observations about Intel’s behavior and intent are very interesting. I see some parallels with my old employer, Boeing. Both companies have become somewhat victimized by their past successes, and what we perceive to be an absurd focus on the performance of their stock as investment vehicles as opposed to a more open dedication to the visions and dreams of engineers that made the two companies great in the first place. However, I would suggest that Boeing has this problem far worse than Intel.


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