Where Will the Next Chip Boom Take IT?

Miniature cameras and other wireless sensors will give our PCs more to think about.

Because he was predicting a trillion-dollar boom in semiconductor spending, National Semiconductor President Brian Halla had a priority position on my Comdex calendar with his keynote speech last Tuesday.

Halla sees a series of cycles during the last several decades, each driven by a technical breakthrough that led to a boom—and then a glut—in a new class of products: memory chips in the 70s, PCs in the 80s, networks in the 90s.

Each overexpansion built the foundation for the next spending surge: Cheap memory and microprocessors enabled the PC; pervasive PCs created the audience that dot-com entrepreneurs pursued with bandwidth investments. Now, that bandwidth multiplies the value of new sources of data by taking bits wherever someone will pay for them.

Its not that information wants to be free, as Stewart Brand famously said. The rest of that quotation (ignored by anti-copyright extremists) adds that even though easily copied, "information wants to be expensive—because in an Information Age, nothing is so valuable as the right information at the right time." Now, it can find a buyer.

What information-yielding breakthroughs will propel the wave that Halla predicts? Id place my bets on a fusion of imaging and wireless, giving manufacturing, medicine, transportation and other industries a host of new ways to see whats happening at all points in their operations.

Wireless tags, such as the Spider RFID product that eWeek Labs named Best of Show at Comdex three years ago, will track products moving through the supply chain (as I discussed with Sun CTO Greg Papadopoulos in last weeks Tech Outlook 2003 special report). Image analysis applications, such as the face recognition technology that we honored as Best of Comdex five years ago, probably arent yet ready to spot terrorists in airports—but they point the way for robotic parts-picking, even minor surgery, not to mention access control without cumbersome and error-prone passwords or other tokens.

Miniature cameras and other wireless sensors will give our computers more to think about, and therefore more to contribute, if we can only write the software—a long-awaited breakthrough, to be sure, that may continue to elude us.

Tell me what you want from the next wave at [email protected]