Innovate or die! A high-tech parable from this week’s Time Magazine

Today I was reading this week’s issue of Time Magazine while eating lunch in my secret fish-and-chips restaurant at an undisclosed location in Milpitas, California when I chanced upon a fascinating article about RIM, maker of the BlackBerry. The article’s author is Sam Gustin and the article’s title is “BlackBerry Crushed.” The article starts off, “Remember when BlackBerry was cool?” and continues with “Now it’s become the highest-profile tech failure in recent memory.”

This blog post is not about RIM’s fall from grace. It’s about the lessons contained in the story. Lessons that every single company in the electronics industry needs to take to heart.

Gustin writes, “The BlackBerry’s decline—and RIM’s failure to keep pace with Apple and Google—offers a cautionary lesson about the importance of innovation in a consumer-technology market evolving at breakneck speed. The problems were threefold. First, after coming to dominate the corporate market, RIM failed to anticipate that consumers—not business customers—would drive the smart-phone revolution. Second, RIM was blindsided by the emergence of the app economy, which drove massive adoption of the iPhone and Android devices. …Third, RIM failed to foresee that smart phones would transcend mere communication to become full-fledged mobile entertainment hubs. As a result, RIM insisted on producing phones with full keyboards even after it became clear that many users prefer touchscreens…”

Again, this blog post isn’t a discussion about RIM specifically. It’s about the importance of innovation, just as Gustin states early in his article.

There’s a lot of innovation taking place right now in the electronics industry. You need only look around. Xilinx and Altera jumped into 28nm IC design early to bring the benefits of that advanced node to the fore, expecting to convince some potential customers to let the FPGA companies effectively do their 28nm design. These two FPGA vendors are using the 28nm node as a clear differentiator, hoping to grow their markets. I have no doubt; they will.

Now we’re staring down the barrel of the 20nm process node. I just wrote about it yesterday (see “20nm design: What have we learned so far?”). You think that’s going to be a differentiator? You bet it is—for one obvious reason you probably expect and for another reason you might not expect. The obvious reason is because you’ll get twice as much “stuff” per square millimeter on a 20nm SoC. You or your customers will be able to cram more functions onto a 20nm device—functions your customers or your customers’ customers want and will pay to get.

The not-so-obvious reason that 20nm SoC design will be a differentiator is because it’s even harder than 28nm design. Proper 20nm EDA tools can help out a lot here, but the difficulty alone will winnow winners from losers. You can be like RIM and decide not to go forward, full speed ahead, or you can decide to innovate. Presumably, you already know which choice the current market favors.

I think 3D IC assembly is very similar in this regard. It’s going to be a real differentiator—also because it’s hard. The list of objections is long and familiar to anyone who lived through the surface-mount revolution in the late 1980s:

  • The infrastructure isn’t there.
  • The parts cost more (although the systems will cost less).
  • Testing is a problem.
  • No one else is doing it.
  • Etc, etc, etc.

Board-level, surface-mount assembly was once considered as radical as 3D IC assembly is today. Now, no one even gives it a thought. In fact, if we happen to see a new through-hole pcb assembly, we think to ourselves “How quaint!”

I think the incorporation of 3D IC assembly techniques is poised to quickly become a differentiator like 20nm SoC design. Why? Because 3D IC assembly (and I am including 2.5D assembly here too) allows end products to be smaller, it allows them to be lighter, and it cuts power consumption (translation: longer battery life). Customers and customers’ customers are willing to pay extra for all three of these attributes.

Are you prepared to differentiate through innovation?

As Gustin writes in his Time Magazine article about RIM’s fall from grace: “It was a failure of vision—and innovation… RIM has paid a steep price.”

Note: If you want to get a copy from a newsstand, the current issue of Time Magazine with Gustin’s article has a cover photo of US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and extensive coverage of the recent court decision on Obamacare. If you think I’m touching that topic in a tech blog like the EDA360 Insider, you’re crazy.


About sleibson2

EDA360 Evangelist and Marketing Director at Cadence Design Systems (blog at
This entry was posted in 2.5D, 20nm, 28nm, 3D, EDA360, Silicon Realization, SoC, SoC Realization, System Realization and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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