Can consumer electronics be built to last?

Sensemaking / Can consumer electronics be built to last?

Cheaper, smaller and faster – and fit for any purpose. Tabula breathes new life into the chip.

06 Aug 2011

Cheaper, smaller and faster – and fit for any purpose. Tabula breathes new life into the chip.

If the software on your PC is a bit tired, you simply download an upgrade online. You can’t do that for the hardware, yet. And so we manufacture over ten billion microprocessors, or chips, a year. But this looks set to change.

A new design means chips could be reprogrammed on demand, giving them a new lease of life. The existing alternative to mass-produced, hard-wired chips is a device with multiple logic gates, whose connections can be reconfigured by the designer or consumer after the manufacturing process.

Complex circuits like this need more wiring, and so are bigger and less efficient that their less flexible competitors. They are used in big science facilities like particle accelerators, and expensive kit like MRI scanners and wireless base stations for mobile phones. That adds up to a big market. Bigger still if they can be made efficient enough to move from high cost, low volume machines to everyday domestic items like laptops, television and even phones.

And this is what Tabula, a private company founded in 2003, hopes to do – with $108 million recently secured in a funding round led by Crosslink Capital and DAG Ventures.

Its new design – touted as the industry’s first ‘3D’ chip – is cheaper, smaller and faster than its predecessors. But its real selling point is that it could be used to do multiple things in many different products – a one-size-fits-all for programming.

Wim Vanderbauwhede, lecturer in computing science at the University of Glasgow, calls the architecture “very clever”, noting that it “allows much higher memory density”. But, he adds, Tabula will have to compete against giants.

True enough: others working towards similar goals, such as Xilinx and Altera, have billions to play with. Whoever wins the race, future-proof hardware could allow IT companies to move away from a disposable ‘upgrade and upgrade again’ culture, towards business models based on goods that last. – Jon Turney

Photo credit: Tabula

What might the implications of this be? What related articles have you seen?

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