Moore's law – that the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles approximately every two years – is nearing the end of the road, according to ARM CEO Warren East, as gains from transistor scaling reach their limits.
"We've had transistor scaling, we've been getting effectively 'free' increased levels of performance and improved power consumption. As we look forward, these CMOS transistors – you can't make them much smaller – so you need to look at new kinds of materials to solve these problems, or challenges, of performance and flexible hardware," said East.
"In the good old days of not very long ago, most of the gain you got was effectively for free by making the transistors smaller – they went faster and you got more power efficiency. But as time goes on, unfortunately, the amount of gain you get just from scaling gets less and less," he said.
He added: "So if we are going to make these smaller transistor designs actually deliver better performance, better power consumption, then you have to get clever; you have to get clever with materials and with the device architecture."
Complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS) technology, in other words, is approaching the end of its life, and new materials will need to be developed.
Crucially, in mobile and embedded devices, East also sees demand for computer processing power fast outstripping developments in battery power. Average battery power, he said, will only double in capacity over the next decade, therefore requiring ever-more power-efficient microprocessors to run mobile devices to the satisfaction of their users
ARM architectures currently dominate the mobile device market, with ARM designs found in more than 90 per cent of mobile devices, including smartphones, Android tablets and Apple iPads. The company's technology has been licensed by 46 out of the world's top-50 semiconductor manufacturers.
Over the next decade or two, East foresees computing power becoming more embedded and distributed, with "smart grids", for example, being used to reduce energy usage in homes and industry. More "intelligent" devices, too, ought also be more energy efficient.
ARM's dominance in mobile devices today is a far cry from the cut-throat battle for survival that it faced when it was spun-out of Acorn Computers in the 1990s. Then, ARM designs had only appeared in Acorn computers, such as the Acorn RiscPC, as well as the Psion Series 5 and the Apple Newton, Apple's first ill-fated move into mobile devices.
It also faced competition from Japanese consumer electronics and industrial conglomerate Hitachi, which offered the Super-H (SH) line of low-power-consumption microprocessors; and MIPS Technologies, which had been acquired by, and later spun out of, workstation maker Silicon Graphics, now SGI.
ARM, however, prospered by offering a licensing and royalty model, combined with consultancy, that appealed to a wide range of semiconductor companies and device manufacturers, developing a rich eco-system for its architecture in the process.
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