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Tag: IBM

No Digital Skyscrapers

A colleague of mine shared an interesting article by Sarah Lacy from tech site Pando Daily about the power of technology building the next set of “digital skyscrapers” – Lacy’s term for enduring, 100-year brands in/made possible by technology. On the one hand, I wholeheartedly agree with one of the big takeaways Lacy wants the reader to walk away with: that more entrepreneurs need to strive to make a big impact on the world and not settle for quick-and-easy payouts. That is, after all, why venture capitalists exist: to fund transformative ideas.

But, the premise of the article that I fundamentally disagreed with – and in fact, the very reason I’m interested in technology is that the ability to make transformative ideas means that I don’t think its possible to make “100-year digital skyscrapers”.

In fact, I genuinely hope its not possible. Frankly, if I felt it were, I wouldn’t be in technology, and certainly not in venture capital. To me, technology is exciting and disruptive because you can’t create long-standing skyscrapers. Sure, IBM and Intel have been around a while — but what they as companies do, what their brands mean, and their relative positions in the industry have radically changed. I just don’t believe the products we will care about or the companies we think are shaping the future ten years from now will be the same as the ones we are talking about today, nor were they the ones we talked about ten years ago, and they won’t be the same as the ones we talk about twenty years from now. I’ve done the 10 year comparison before to illustrate the rapid pace of Moore’s Law, but just to be illustrative again: remember, 10 years ago:

  • the iPhone (and Android) did not exist
  • Facebook did not exist (Zuckerberg had just started at Harvard)
  • Amazon had yet to make a single cent of profit
  • Intel thought Itanium was its future (something its basically given up on now)
  • Yahoo had just launched a dialup internet service (seriously)
  • The Human Genome Project had yet to be completed
  • Illumina (posterchild for next-generation DNA sequencing today) had just launched its first system product

And, you know what, I bet 10 years from now, I’ll be able to make a similar list. Technology is a brutal industry and it succeeds by continuously making itself obsolete. It’s why its exciting, and it’s why I don’t think and, in fact, I hope that no long-lasting digital skyscrapers emerge.

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Disruptive ARMada

I’ve mentioned before that one of the greatest things about being in the technology space is how quickly the lines of competition rapidly change.

image Take ARM, the upstart British chip company which licenses the chip technology which powers virtually all mobile phones today. Although they’ve traditionally been relegated to “dumb” chips because of their low cost and low power consumption, they’ve been riding a wave of disruptive innovation to move beyond just low cost “dumb” featurephones into more expensive smartphones and, potentially, into new low-power/always-connected netbooks.

More interestingly, though, is the recent revelation that ARM chips have been used in more than just low-power consumer-oriented devices, but also in production grade servers which can power websites, something which has traditionally been in the domain of more expensive chips by companies like AMD, Intel, and IBM.

And now, with:

  1. A large semiconductor company like Marvell officially announcing that they will be releasing a high-end ARM chip called the Armada 310 targeted at servers
  2. A new startup called Smooth Stone (its a David-vs-Goliath allusion) raising $48M (some of it from ARM itself!) to build ARM chips aimed at data center servers
  3. ARM announced their Cortex A15 processor, a multicore beast with support for hardware virtualization and physical address extensions — features you generally would only see in a server product
  4. Dell (which is the leading supplier of servers for this new generation of webscale data centers/customers) has revealed they have built test servers  running on ARM chips as proof-of-concept and look forward to the next generation of ARM chips

It makes you wonder if we’re on the verge of another disruption in the high-end computer market. Is ARM about to repeat what Intel/AMD chips did to the bulkier chips from IBM, HP, and Sun/Oracle?

(Image credit)

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POWER trip

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I recently read The Race for a New Game Machine, a new book which details the trials and tribulations behind the creation of the chips (which run on the POWER architecture, hence the title of this post) which powered Microsoft’s Xbox360 and Sony’s Playstation 3 next-gen gaming consoles.

The interesting thing that the book reveals is that the same IBM team responsible for designing the Playstation 3 chip (the Cell) with support from partners Sony and Toshiba was asked halfway through the Cell design process to adapt the heart of the Playstation 3 chip for the chip which would go into Microsoft’s XBox360 (the Xenon)!

Ironically, even though work on the Xbox360 started way after work on the Playstation 3’s chip, due to manufacturing issues, Microsoft was able to actually have a test chip BEFORE Sony did.

As the book was written from the perspective of David Shippy and Mickie Phipps, two the engineering leads from IBM, the reader gets a first-hand account of what it was like to be on the engineering team. While the technical details are more watered down than I would have personally liked, the book dove a lot deeper into the business/organizational side of things than I thought IBM legal would allow.

Four big lessons stood out to me after reading this:

  • Organization is important. Although ex-IBM CEO Lou Gerstner engineered one of the most storied corporate turnarounds of all time, helping to transform IBM from a failing mainframe company into a successful and well-integrated “solutions” company, Shippy and Phipps’ account reveal a deeply dysfunctional organization. Corporate groups pursued more projects than the engineering teams could support, and rival product/engineering groups refused to work together in the name of marking territory. In my mind, the Cell chip failed in its vision of being used as the new architecture for all “smart electronic devices” in no small part because of this organizational dysfunction.
  • Know the competition. One thing which stood out to me as a good bestimage practice for competitive engineering projects was the effort described in an early chapter about IBM’s attempt to predict how Intel’s chips would perform during the timeframe of the product launch. I’m not sure if this is done often in engineering efforts, but the fact that IBM tried to understand (and not undersell) the capabilities of Intel’s chips during the launch window helped give the IBM team a clear goal and set of milestones for determining success. That their chip continues to have a remarkably high operating clock speed and computing performance is a testament to the success of that effort.
  • Morale is important. If there was one feeling that the authors were able to convey in the book, it was frustration. Frustration at the organizational dysfunction which plagued IBM. Frustration at not quite ethical shenanigans that IBM played in to deliver the same processing core to two competitors. Frustration at morale-shattering layoffs and hiring freezes. It’s no secret today that IBM’s chip-making division is not the most profitable division in IBM (although this is partly because IBM relies on the division not to make profits, but to give its server products a technology advantage). IBM is certainly not doing itself any favors, then, by working its engineers to the point of exhaustion. Seeing how both authors left IBM during or shortly after this project, I can only hope that IBM has changed things, or else the world may be short yet another talented chipmaker.
  • Move like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Why did Microsoft “get the jump” on Sony, despite the latter starting far far in advance? I trace it to two things. First, immediately upon seeing an excellent new chip technology (ironically, the core processor for the Playstation 3), they seized on the opportunity. They refused to take a different chip from what they wanted, they put their money where their mouth was, and they did it as fast as they could. Second, Microsoft set up a backup manufacturing line in Singapore (at a contract chip manufacturer called Chartered). This was expensive and risky, but Microsoft realized it would be good insurance against risk at IBM’s line and a good way to quickly ramp up production. This combination of betting big, but betting smart (with a way to cover their bet if it went wrong) is a hallmark of Microsoft’s business strategy. And, in this case, they made the right call. The Xbox 360, while not selling as well as Nintendo’s Wii (which incidentally runs an IBM chip as well), has been fairly successful for Microsoft (having the highest attach rate – games sold per machine – of any console), and they had the backup plan necessary to deal with the risk that IBM’s manufacturing process would run into problems (which it ultimately did).

If you’re interested in the tears and sweat that went into designing IBM’s “PB” processing core (it’s revealed in the book that PB stands for PlayBox – an in-joke by Shippy’s team about how the technology being designed was for both the PLAYstation 3 and the xBOX), some first-hand account of how difficult it is to design next-generation semiconductor products, or how IBM got away with designing the same product for two competitors, I’d highly recommend this book.

(Image credit – book cover) (Image – Cell chip)

Book: The Race for a New Game Machine (Amazonlink)

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