Old Laptops and Moore’s Law

Photo by Bruce Christianson on Unsplash

The slow down of technology surprised me this week.

I’m writing this on an 11 inch MacBook Air made in late 2010. I dug it out of a pile of computers that sat unused for years. I wanted to blog and email while on this trip without taking my heavier, large-screen laptop and my experiment with an iPad failed because I like a real keyboard.

I thought about upgrading to the latest MacBook Air and realized that the fastest new ones are only about 3 times as fast, twice the RAM and about the same storage. While that is good, it is not the pace of change we are used to. This machine made nine years ago is still perfectly fine for writing a blog, browsing the web and handling email. Plus it is smaller than today’s machines (Apple discontinued the 11 inch model), making it perfect for travel.

Think of it. Laptops used to be obsolete after three years. This one is fine after nine!

What is happening? Technology is slowing down. The chips used in laptops and data centers are hitting limits imposed by physics. Clever engineers are still figuring out ways to pack more and more transistors into microprocessors, but they are resorting to weirder and weirder techniques.

In the era when Moore’s law had a clear path into the future, the strategy to increasing the size and speed of computer chips was reducing the size of transistors. Smaller dimensions allowed a smaller and smaller amount of electrons to do the work of computer logic – switching from one state to another at speeds of billions of times a second.

Now chip makers are stacking chips, rethinking the design of chips, computers, and transistors. These are all very clever ideas and some of them will work. But they represent many different strategies for overcoming the Moore’s law slow down.

Moore’s law of the past was not just a curve and a prediction. It was a common strategy embraced by many portions of the entire semiconductor industry. As a result, the benefits of increasing wafer size, decreasing feature size, increasing of clock speed, and a gazillion of other innovations were synergistic.

One little implication of the end of Moore’s law is that I am still typing away on this old laptop. A big implication I worry about is consolidation and ossification of the tech industry. I hope to dig into these ideas more and will keep using this old computer to do it when I’m on the road.