Processor Whispers: About strong-minded women, patents and picowires
by Andreas Stiller
IBM has the highest profit, the most patents – and now a woman in charge. Intel is upset about sold processor prototypes and AMD about the lawsuit from a notebook manufacturer.
The year 2012 marks the start of female domination, at least in the IT industry. Last autumn, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman unexpectedly took the CEO chair at Hewlett-Packard and this year, on January 1, Virginia "Ginni" Rometty took the baton from Sam Palmisano as the first female CEO in one hundred years of IBM history. IBM Germany was even faster in this respect and handed over the reins to Martina Koederitz in May 2011.
As chairman of the board, Palmisano continues to occupy an important position at the world's third largest IT company. Rometty, his candidate of choice, is taking over a healthy company with significantly more than $100bn of sales and, according to estimates, more than $16bn of profit in the current fiscal year 2011. Shortly before the takeover, Palmisano even came to terms with the EU concerning a pending antitrust investigation. The issue was settled peacefully and IBM promised to give competing mainframe maintenance providers access to spare parts and technical information under fair conditions for five years.
In spite of last year's management crisis, Hewlett-Packard is still the number one in sales in the US, followed by IBM. HP's sales only dropped slightly, to $127bn. However, at $7.1bn, its profit falls below half of IBM's earnings.
Worldwide, Samsung Electronics, by far the largest subsidiary of the Korean Samsung corporation, currently dominates the IT market. It managed to raise its annual sales to the equivalent of about $140bn. In the highly competitive smartphone market, it was first of all the Galaxy S2, released in early summer 2011, that brought Samsung a growth of 73% in this market during the last quarter, enough to leave Apple far behind. And also at Samsung, a new wind is blowing: shortly before Christmas, for the first time in the company's history, a woman has moved to the executive floor. Head of marketing, Shim Su Ok, now sits on the board as execute vice president – together with 47 male executives.
As for US patents granted throughout last year, Samsung maintains second place with about 5000, while IBM stays in a secure first place with around 6150. Far behind, the Japanese quadriga, Sony, Canon, Toshiba and Panasonic, follow with roughly 2900 patents each. Such patents can be a very profitable business. Although it's unknown how much Google paid for the 2000 patents it purchased from IBM last year; in any case, it just purchased another 200. And, Google paid $12.5bn for the acquisition of Motorola's mobile branch with 7500 patents.
Under the Microscope
Source: University of New South Wales Probably one of the most important IBM patents is numbered 4,343,993 and dates back to 1982. Its inventors even got the Nobel prize for it: the scanning tunnelling microscope by Gerd Binning and Heinz Rohrer. Based on this microscope, the atomic force and scanning probe microscopes could be developed, without which modern nanotechnology would be impossible.
In the current issue of Science, scientists from the Australian Universities New South Wales and Melbourne, as well as from the American Purdue University, report a very surprising effect related to this area of science and technology. With their tiny nanowires, consisting of just four linked phosphor atoms embedded into silicon, Ohm's law continued to be valid, although it had generally been expected that the quantum effects would dominate and that the resistance would rise exponentially. These extremely minute structures are about 100 times smaller than the 22 nm of the most advanced processor technology, so they are picowires rather than nanowires. Such extremely well-conducting, atomic, tiny wires could be highly interesting for future conventional logical units, like interconnect, as well as for quantum computers. The only problem: up to now, each phosphor atom has to be cumbersomely placed by hand, with help of the aforementioned microscopes, and it's still unclear if or when industrial production will be possible.
Intel's 22 nm technology hasn't truly arrived yet, anyway. Taiwanese sources report that the processor in this manufacturing technology, codenamed Ivy Bridge, is supposed to be officially released on April 8. Some selected partners have already shown off Ultrabooks with prototypes at CES. In other respects, Intel now acts more strictly concerning its prototypes and has brought about the arrest of five Taiwanese engineers who sold "engineering samples" on eBay, which they had received under a non-disclosure agreement (NDA).
Intel is particularly sensitive when samples of new, not yet available processors are offered, which quickly leads to benchmark results becoming widely available in the Internet. Intel's policy is understandable because such prototypes can strongly deviate from the final version in terms of performance, power consumption and stability. However, on Chinese web sites, more specifically in their forums, Intel isn't able to avoid such indiscretions and one can already find first test results for the mobile Ivy Bridge Core i7-3920XM, for instance. Results from CinebenchR10 (23187 points with all cores), wPrime v2.07 (13.058 s), 3DMark06 (about 8049) and 3DMark11 (P615) are available. While the CPU, as was to be expected, is only slightly faster than its predecessor, the performance of the integrated processor graphics HD4000 has improved significantly – but it still belongs to the lower league. A comparison: the integrated Radeon HD 6620G inside AMD's A8 processor scores well over twice as much in 3DMark11 (P1625).
External graphics chips still offer much higher performance, but then they also consume much more power. And sometimes they get so hot while doing so that they become an expensive warranty case – and that's exactly what the Taiwanese manufacturer Quanta is suing AMD for; the case has been brought before the San Francisco District Court. And Quanta isn't just anyone – the company produces a large portion of the notebooks sold by Hewlett-Packard, Apple, Dell, Sony, Toshiba and many others. According to Quanta, some years ago, in a notebook built by Quanta for NEC, AMD's Radeon Xpress X1250 didn't function as specified in the contract and caused malfunctions. And so, Quanta seeks compensation for damages. AMD counters that Quanta had equipped notebooks for other clients with the same chip without overheating issues.