The rise of the ARM architecture in mobile computing has the potential to adjust the balance of power in the computing world as mobile devices become more popular and supplant PCs for many users. Although the ARM architecture comes from the United Kingdom, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments, and NVIDIA are all U.S.-based companies with strong positions in this space. However, the shift does open the door to more foreign competition, such as Korea’s Samsung, and new entries, because ARM licenses are relatively inexpensive, allowing many vendors to design ARM-based chips and have them fabricated in Asia.
However, just as technical challenges are changing the hardware and software development cycle and the software-hardware interface, the rise of mobile computing and its associated software ecosystems are changing the nature of software deployment and innovation in applications. In contrast to developing applications for general-purpose PCs—where any application developer, for example, a U.S. defense contractor or independent software vendor, can create software that executes on any PC of their choosing—in many cases, developing software for mobile devices imposes additional requirements on developers, with “apps” having to be approved by the hardware vendors before deployment. There are advantages and disadvantage to each approach, but changes in the amount and locus of control over software deployments will have implications for what kind of software is developed and how innovation proceeds.
A final inflection point is the rise of large-scale services, as exemplified by search engines, social networks and cloud-hosting services. At the largest scale, the systems supporting each of these are larger than the entire Internet was just a few years ago. Associated innovations have included a renewed focus on analysis of unstructured and ill-structured data (so-called big data), packaging and energy efficiency for massive data centers, and the architecture of service delivery and content distribution systems. All of these are the enabling technologies for delivery of services to mobile devices. The mobile device is already becoming the primary personal computing system for many people, backed up by data storage, augmented computational horsepower, and services provided by the cloud. Leadership in the technologies associated with distributed cloud services, data center hardware and software, and mobile devices will provide a competitive advantage in the global computing marketplace.
Software innovations in mobile systems where power constraints are severe (battery life directly affects user experience) are predicted to use a different model than PCs, in which more and more processing is performed in the “cloud” rather than on the mobile device. A flexible software infrastructure and algorithms that optimize for network availability, power on the device, and precision are heralding a challenging ecosystem.
Fundamental to these technologies are algorithms for ensuring properties such as reliability, availability, and security in a distributed computing system, as well as algorithms for deep data mining and inference. These algorithms are very different in nature from parallel algorithms suitable for traditional supercomputing applications. While U.S. researchers have made investments in these areas already, the importance and commercial growth potential demand research and development into algorithmic areas including encryption, machine learning, data mining, and asynchronous algorithms for distributed systems protocols.
Semiconductor scaling has encountered fundamental physical limits, and improvements in performance and power are slowing. This slowdown has, among other things, driven a shift from the single microprocessor computer architectures to homogenous and now heterogeneous multicore processors, which break the virtuous cycle that most software innovation has expected and relied on. While innovations in transistor materials, lithography, and chip architecture provide promising opportunities for improvements in performance and power, there is no consensus by the semiconductor and computer industry on the most promising path forward.
It is likely that these limitations will require a shift in the locus of innovation away from dependence on single-thread performance, at least in the way performance has been achieved (i.e., increasing transistor count per chip at reduced power). Performance at the processor level will continue to be important, as that performance can be translated into desired functionalities (such as increased security, reliability, more capable software, and so on.) But new ways of thinking about overall system goals and how to achieve them may be needed.
What, then, are the most promising opportunities for innovation breakthroughs by the semiconductor and computing industry? The ongoing globalization of science and technology and increased—and cheaper—access to new materials, technologies, infrastructure, and markets have the potential to shift the U.S. competitive advantage in the global computing ecosystem, as well as to refocus opportunities for innovation in the computing space. In addition, the computing and semiconductor