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News Feature: Moore no more

Moore leaves Intel, but his law lives on

Gordon Moore, one of Silicon Valley's most influential and respected people, officially resigned from the board of Intel on Thursday last week. But though his departure may mean the end of an era for the company the Register called Chipzilla, Moore's legacy will live on.

Moore began making waves in the microprocessor industry in 1965 when he originated the idea that chip performance doubles every 18 months - a concept that came to be known as Moore's Law. Three years later, Moore co-founded Intel, which helped push his law, and profit from it, like no other company in the microprocessor industry.

Moore left Intel because he reached a mandatory retirement age of 72 he himself set for directors of the company. He will still attend meetings and provide advice to the company, but Moore can no longer vote on the what Intel should do.

Moore's departure from Intel marks the end of an era in which he helped turn a company that made $2,500 in revenue its first year into a $38 billion operation.

Moore continues to believe that chip performance will follow his law for at least the next 10 to 20 years, according to Howard High, an Intel spokesman who heard Moore speak after the shareholder's meeting. Intense amounts of heat produced by faster chips and the struggle to shrink circuits within the chips stand as two of the biggest obstacles for extending Moore's law well into this century.

The interval of performance increase may stretch to five years or more after engineers butt heads against the heat and component limitations, High said of Moore's current thinking on the subject.

But Intel and a group of other chip makers recently proved they could make chips in a new way that could see processors running at 10GHz or faster by 2006.

Intel released the 4004 processor in 1971 with 2,250 transistors on the chip. This is dwarfed by the 42 million transistors on its Pentium 4 processor released in 2000. Following this trend, engineers should be able to put billions of transistors on a processor by the end of this decade, at which point processors would have thermal densities that are greater than a nuclear reactor, according to Intel.

While Moore and others expect a slowing in the time it takes chip speed to double, new technologies could make Moore's legacy last well into the future.

IBM, for example, is betting on some unconventional alternatives worthy of science fiction novels such as molecular and quantum computers.

Molecular computers, built atom by atom using scanning-tunnelling microscope technology, could theoretically store and process hundreds of thousands of times more information than computer chips made from silicon. Quantum computers use the state of electrons as the basis for calculation, and could operate even faster. These types of computer have the potential to solve some difficult problems, but won't likely be used for general computing.

Whether or not chip improvements slow, microprocessors are finding their way into more and more devices used in daily life. Many technology companies hope to put chips in just about everything from light bulbs to shoes in a few years, creating a truly connected world.

With this in mind, Moore appeared confident of the processor's place in the world for many years to come.

"I think the impact of the microprocessor over the next decade or two is going to be significantly more than it's been over the last decade," he said after his last shareholders' meeting.


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