Mobile chip speed wars have to end, Broadcom chairman says

Battery life will win out over ongoing performance upgrades, according to Henry Samueli

By , IDG News Service |  Hardware

The chip industry is in for major changes in the coming years, according to Broadcom Chairman and Chief Technical Officer Henry Samueli. In 1991, he co-founded the communications chip giant, which today brings in annual revenue of more than US$8 billion from components for all manner of network, business and consumer products. At a pre-CES event in San Francisco earlier this week, Samueli visited from the company's Irvine, California, headquarters and sat down with IDG News Service to talk about devices, mobile networks and the uncertain future of silicon.

This is an edited transcript of the conversation.

IDG News Service: Is Broadcom working on 5G cellular yet?

Henry Samueli: Just from a conceptual stage. We don't have any active development programs, but we have people in the standards bodies. In fact, now that we've acquired Renesas Mobile, there was a whole team as part of that Renesas Mobile team that was focused on advanced standards. Many of those folks are looking at different flavors of LTE-Advanced, but then also looking at what's even beyond that and in the so-called 5G space, where you have these ultra-dense small cells, and beam steering antennas. So it's more exploratory front-end work but no actual product development, of course.

IDGNS: What more can you do about the battery life on my phone?

Samueli: As you go from 28nm to 16nm to 10nm, the power dissipation of these chips does go down. Unfortunately, people are still running uphill on the speed wars and trying to build faster cores that are running at 2GHz, 2.5GHz, 3GHz. That drives the power back up again.

Assuming you can level off and say, well, 2GHz is fast enough, and then you migrate to the next technology, power will actually go down. Better power management and more advanced process technologies should get us more battery life. But you're not going to get a week, versus a day now. You're not going to see quantum jumps, unfortunately. Battery technology is just incrementally getting better, not significantly. I don't see us ever getting away from overnight charging of cellphones.

IDGNS: Is Broadcom willing to call a halt to the speed wars?

Samueli: It's difficult. It almost has to be an industry decision. Because people like a bigger number on the box (even though) the experience may not be any different. It's keeping up with the Joneses. You have to do it, but eventually I think the industry will decide battery life is more important than an extra few hundred megahertz of clock rate. Apple is already there. The designed their apps processor that's just what they need to make iOS 7 work.

IDGNS: Apple is in a better position than Broadcom to pick a speed and stick with it, because you need to serve different OSes.

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