Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Dubai update

Just a quick update on my post on the Dubai World debt restructuring. A spokesman for Dubai Silicon Oasis says that DSO is not part of Dubai World and will not be directly affected. The indirect effects are anyone's guess.

Be careful what you wish for: telecom edition

Oh, this is rich.

First, the iPhone launches, with AT&T as its only US provider, and an unlimited data plan as the standard package.

Because the iPhone is popular, users flock to AT&T. Because internet access from the iPhone is easy, people do it, a lot.

AT&T's network staggers under the load, leading to dropped calls and poor performance.

AT&T's solution? "Some form of usage-based pricing for data is inevitable," according to the Associated Press.

What I want to know is why anyone was surprised by this. The history of the internet -- the history of computing -- tells us that if you make access easier, people will do more of it. And now AT&T is shocked, simply shocked, that people are actually using all those bandwidth intensive links that Apple so helpfully provides.

Of course AT&T's dilemma is real. They need to improve service, and the money to do that has to come from somewhere. But capping usage seems like such a late-1990s way to go about it. Given the bandwidth demands of the Apple Store, I wonder what Apple will have to say about this.

(Link by way of the Atlantic business channel.)

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Yes, the Middle East matters to IC makers

Interesting... The Advanced Technology Investment Company launched GlobalFoundries, a joint venture with AMD, earlier this year. Earlier this month, it agreed to purchase Chartered Semiconductor, thereby becoming a major player in the foundry market. ATIC is owned by the government of Abu Dhabi, and has said it plans to build manufacturing facilities in Dubai Silicon Oasis.

Meanwhile, Dubai World, the Dubai government's largest investment vehicle, recently announced it would seek a six-month hold on debt payments as part of a restructuring, the same day it raised US$5 billion from Abu Dhabi banks. Both Dubai and Abu Dhabi are part of the United Arab Emirates, and the federal UAE government is under pressure to provide more support for Dubai World, which it may or may not do. The UAE has been hit hard by declines in the price of oil. More generally, the global economic downturn has put a lot of pressure on government finances around the world, and the Dubai World restructuring shows that support for underperforming investments can't be assumed. (Best coverage of the Dubai World restructuring is at the Wall Street Journal. Subscription required.)

I don't know how the problems at Dubai World will affect ATIC or, for that matter, Dubai Silicon Oasis. I've sent out some queries, but don't expect a response over the weekend. The situation definitely bears watching, though. The semiconductor industry rewards patient capital, but global conditions are making patience difficult.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

It won't be zombies next time

Yes, a blog post! Believe me, I'm shocked too. Though this year has been surprisingly good, given the economic situation, it's had me working on several larger, multi-month projects. That's taken me out of the day-to-day news flow to some extent.

But I did notice this, and it's well worth passing on. Atlantic Business Channel editor Daniel Indiviglio has broken down the recently released proposal on financial regulation and systemic risk. How do regulators deal with institutions that are too big too fail? Indiviglio's analysis is long -- I've linked to the last of eight parts, which summarizes -- but readable for those of us who aren't economic policy wonks.

At the same time, I can't help but think of an old story in which an adventurer complains that he knows all about zombies now, so of course it won't be zombies that attack him next time. Booms and busts appear to be inherent in markets, dating back at least to the 17th century Dutch tulip mania. The desire to build bigger and bigger institutions and accumulate more and more assets is as old as humanity. Any regulatory scheme that preserves the essential dynamism of markets is likely to contain the seeds of its own failure. The critical question may not be whether it will work, but what will contain the damage when it fails.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Be your own customer service advocate

Freedom of the press belongs to the person who owns one, but the power of the press does, too. And in the Internet era, anyone can own a press.

Many major newspapers and TV stations have customer service features: a reader or viewer writes them with a customer service problem, they take it up with the vendor and essentially use the threat of public embarrassment to get the problem fixed. Heaven help the hapless vendor if the victim is actually a journalist.

But what happens when everyone can be a publisher, and many many people can command an audience of hundreds or thousands? Stuff like this, in which incompetent customer service confronts the power of Twitter, and loses, big time. (Sleep-deprived new parent rant. Contains shouting, some bad language, and references to baby poo.)

Full disclosure: I have occasionally played the journalist card myself. But it's always a last resort. Like many such weapons, it loses effectiveness if used too often.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Enough records to go around

It's easy to achieve world record solar performance. You just have to define your niche properly. The following records were all announced recently:

  • Most efficient solar cell: a five-junction concentrator device from the University of New South Wales. 43% efficient.

  • Most efficient triple-junction cell: a concentrator cell from SpectroLab. 41.6% efficient.

  • Most efficient screen-printed monocrystalline silicon production cell: more than 18% efficient, from Suniva. The "screen-printed" qualifier is important, as SunPower's non-screen-printed production cells top 20%.

  • Most efficient multicrystalline silicon panels: 15.6% efficiency, achieved by Suntech Power. Though this is a lower number than the other records, it's actually pretty interesting. It's for a complete panel, not a cell, and beats Sandia's longstanding record.

Update: But wait, there's more! I missed this one...

  • Most efficient flexible CdTe cell. 12.4%, achieved by a group in Switzerland. This one is important because it uses a low temperature process, compatible with roll-to-roll processing.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Two great buzzwords that work great together

This is interesting.

Carbon nanotubes have properties that make them very interesting as possible channel materials for advanced transistors. Unfortunately, precise placement of trillions of nanotubes is a difficult problem.

Enter DNA. DNA is very good at self-assembly, so it's (relatively) easy to make an array of DNA structures. It's also easy to modify a DNA molecule so that it will bind to, say, a carbon nanotube.

At least that's the idea behind recent work at IBM. So far they're still working on the DNA scaffold, but the potential is very cool.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

What's happening in Iran?

Useful sites for news from Iran:
Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish
Huffington Post
National Iranian-American Council

And for video:
(Be aware that some of these videos show a great deal of graphic violence.)

The best foreign media coverage has been from the BBC. Still, most foreign journalists in Iran have been asked to leave and/or face severe restrictions on their freedom of movement. The above links depend largely on reports and video from citizens in Iran, either submitted by email or posted to sites like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr. (Search for the IranElection tag on any of these sites.) Most of these reports are impossible to confirm.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Time for a Truth Commission

Supposed links between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein were one of the main justifications for the Iraq War. Dick Cheney in particular continued to point to those links long after they had been debunked by both the 9/11 Commission and the Pentagon.

That's bad enough. But now McClatchy is reporting that the search for proof of such links was one of the major motivations for the torture of "high value" detainees.

Let that sink in for a minute. Techniques used by Communist regimes to extract false confessions were deployed by American interrogators searching for evidence of a conspiracy that didn't actually exist. The Bush regime sacrificed the rule of law and 200 years of hard-earned American moral authority in order to achieve their own political goals.

(And incidentally, that last link is truly scary stuff. Katrina-level incompetence applied to interrogation policy.)

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Yes, it really is that bad

I just had a look at the latest equipment book-to-bill numbers, and they're pretty ugly. Both bookings and billings are below the levels reached in the depths of the dot-com meltdown, which was itself a historic downturn for the IC industry.

Worse, the ratio has not been above one since January 2007 (although it lingered in the upper 0.90s until May). The two years of the 2000-2002 downturn seemed like an eternity, and this one clearly isn't over yet.

The good news, if you can call it that, is that bookings seem to have stabilized, although at painfully low levels. I'm not going to call a bottom just yet, but I'm hearing hints of optimism rather than the unmitigated doom of a few months back.

The other good news is that the rise of consumer electronics in the last few years probably means a faster bounce off the bottom, at least for IC volume. It takes a lot less to get people to buy hundred-dollar gadgets than thousand-dollar computers. Of course the gadgets bring in less revenue, too.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The customer is always right, 450-mm edition

I've had my differences with Robert Castellano in the past, but I think his view of the proposed 450-mm wafer transition is pretty accurate. The switch to 300-mm wafers was great for the chip companies, not so great for the equipment companies. So there are likely to be some tough negotiations about development funding and equipment purchase commitments before 450-mm equipment moves forward.

The bottom line, though, is that fighting with your customers is never a winning strategy. If big customers like Intel and Samsung are determined to build 450-mm fabs, the equipment companies who help them do it will be more successful than those who can't or won't.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Clean coal is part, but only part, of the energy answer

Environmentalists often argue that investments in clean coal technology are just wasted money. It's a dirty fuel, it will always be a dirty fuel, and so the ultimate answer is to tax it into fiscal oblivion.

In a perfect world, I would agree with them.

But in this world, coal-generated electricity isn't going to go away. Coal is too plentiful and too cheap. Given a choice between turning the lights off and burning coal, countries will choose coal every time. Any workable energy or climate change policy is going to have to deal with the problem of coal.

Which is essentially the point Energy Secretary Chu made this week in comments supporting clean coal investments. Yet his other point was equally important: the problem of coal isn't going to be easy to fix. Clean coal is important, but it's not a strategy by itself.

There's something to be said for putting smart guys to work on energy policy.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

DOE stimulates Solyndra

Solyndra recently received DOE loan guarantees to support construction of a new manufacturing facility. Good for them. The guarantees illustrate the challenges as well as the benefits of government support, though: the law authorizing them was passed in 2005, applications were due by the end of 2006, yet Solyndra is the first company to actually receive a guarantee. Inclusion of funds in the recent economic stimulus package no doubt helped the process along.

Solyndra has an interesting technology, with CIGS solar material deposited on a cylindrical substrate. The idea is to keep the same cross-sectional area facing the sun at all times, without the complexity and cost of tilted mounts or tracking motors. It makes sense, but unfortunately they haven't shared much information about cost or performance. Third party sources tell me that their installation is as simple as claimed, but are more skeptical about how cost effective the panels are once installed.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

So where have you been, anyway?

I joined an Internet startup in 1998. Even then people were saying things like "biggest change since Gutenberg." The original Napster launched in 1999, and iTunes in 2001. I've been watching ad pages in industry print magazines shrink for most of that time. So count me among the flabbergasted that Traditional Publishing seems to be only just realizing that there might be a problem with their business model.

Really? You think?

Sheesh. What rock have they been hiding under for the last decade, anyway?

(Link by way of the Daily Dish.)

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

She's alive!

No, I haven't died or quit. I'm sorry about the lack of posts in recent months. I've been transitioning into different (and mostly bigger) projects for some new clients, and am still working out the necessary load balancing. I hope to be more conscientious going forward, and appreciate your patience.

Apples vs. oranges

A new study from MIT compares energy and resource consumption of various industries on a pound-for-pound basis. Yep, energy consumption per pound of output for manhole covers versus integrated circuits. Not surprisingly, integrated circuits consume a whole lot more energy. A more useful metric might be energy consumption per dollar value, or perhaps a ratio of value in to value out.

While it's tempting to dismiss the study as obviously ridiculous, energy consumption is an important issue for energy-generating technologies such as solar power. The more energy it takes to make a solar panel, the longer it takes for solar panels to start reducing net fossil fuel consumption: the panel has to recover its own energy cost first. Unless the solar industry generates more power than it consumes, it's hard for it to claim to be "green" or "sustainable."

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

How many new companies was that again?

Greentech Media recently updated their list of solar industry startups. Not surprisingly, there are a lot of them. At least 200 who are willing to tell the world about their plans, goodness knows how many more in stealth mode.

Most new businesses fail, so many of these won't live long enough to grow up. But without entrepreneurs willing to take the chance, the Intels and Apples and Googles of tomorrow would never see the light of day.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Fifty years of Moore's Law

The current issue of Technology Review has a nice photo essay illustrating the evolution of integrated circuits from Kilby's device to AMD's upcoming quad-core Phenom II. Techie that I am, I would have liked to see scale bars, but it's worth a look even without them.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Shoe moves to other foot, whiplash ensues

Fascinating. Two of the most visible advocates of a strong executive branch have suddenly rediscovered the importance of checks and balances.