SmoothSpan Blog

For Executives, Entrepreneurs, and other Digerati who need to know about SaaS and Web 2.0.

Archive for March 20th, 2008

Are Custom Chips An Answer to the Multicore Crisis?

Posted by Bob Warfield on March 20, 2008

Stacey Higginbotham wrote an interesting piece that made me wonder.  Apparently there are lots of less than cutting edge chip fabs out there that people want to keep running.  It got me to wonder.  In an age where smaller features on chips translate only to more transistors, but not neccesarily faster transistors, is the ability to have more transistors as economically valuable?  Particularly if we can’t put them to use?  The problem is Moore’s Law these days translates to more cores, not faster clock speeds.  Nearly all the software out there can’t make use of the extra cores yet, and there is a lot of discussion about how the world may have to completely retool software to make use of lots of cores.  Meanwhile, Intel sails on with 6 core chips on the horizon, more to come, and not a very good idea what to do with them.

What if what separates the latest “good” fabs from older “obsolete” fabs is not longer that valuable?  Maybe the value is less from ever smaller feature sizes and more from new chip types?  That would shift the economics from favoring giants like Intel capable of building ever more expensive fabs to those with the IP to design more new chips on fab processes that are “good enough” for lots of interesting applications.  As big as Intel is, maybe driving faster CPU’s is not the most lucrative pasttime at this point in the technology curve.

It used to be that a general purpose CPU that constantly doubled in speed every 18 months (Moore’s Law) was the place to invest.  It was a truly general purpose device capable of running all sorts of software.  There have been special purpose chips built too for maximum performance in various areas:  graphics coprocessors and various network chips are good examples.  Suppose we can make special purpose chips for almost any purpose.  I once talked to a startup that had built a hardware search accelerator for example.  They vanished into the Government spy world never to be heard from again, but it is intriguing. 

If you could create a dirt cheap special purpose chip, what would it do?  What would be the market for it?

Before the dawn of RISC there was much interest in hardware accelerators for specific languages.  Lisp machines were one such.  I remember reading a quote from Alan Kay that modern machines don’t run dynamic languages like Lisp and Smalltalk as much faster than the old machines like the Dorado as their newfound clockspeeds would imply they should.  He hinted that radically different hardware architectures could greatly benefit such languages.  I couldn’t find more on that than this quote that says the new generation is only about 50x faster than the old machines, which is a pretty poor showing indeed.

Today we have a renaissance in the interpreted and scripting languages that are descendants of languages like Lisp and Smalltalk.  Languages like Ruby on Rails, Python, and PHP are very mainstream and might benefit.  One wonders whether even Java might benefit.  Would a chip optimized to run the virtual machines of one of these languages without regard to compatibility with the old x86 world be able to run them a lot faster?  Would a chip that runs Java 10x faster than the fastest available cores from Intel be valuable at a time when Java has stopped getting faster via Moore’s Law? 

It seems to me it would.

Posted in multicore | 1 Comment »

Yahoo + Microsoft = Web Mail Dominance + SaaS Synergy + Finally Social Networking On A New Order

Posted by Bob Warfield on March 20, 2008

Jeremy Zawodny writes that Yahoo + Microsoft = Web Mail Dominance based on this market share graphic:


As you can see, and as Dave McClure wrote in his 500Hats blog, adding these two together results in total dominance for web mail. 

True enough, but there is even more going on around this pairing.  Microsoft has chosen to make Exchange and Sharepoint the initial centerpieces for its SaaS/Cloud Computing initiative.  Yet web mail makes for a painfully exposed flank that could be attacked.  Picking up Yahoo effectively eliminates that flank.  In fact, they’ll be able to seamlessly plumb all these disparate mail systems together in interesting ways if they think about it for a bit.  This will be tantamount to the same kind of market share and dominance Google has over search, but instead it will be e-mail.   That’s certainly not as ideal as Search, but it is interesting.

After using Xobni for a while, I am one of those who believes e-mail can be revitalized by injecting some social networking features into it.  Microsoft, BTW, is rumored to be closing in on a Xobni acquisition as well.   In fact, I wrote that one of the 10 things LinkedIn ought to do is to either acquire or build Xobni’s functionality.   Picture what it could mean if Microsoft has this much control over e-mail, gets Xobni, and ties it all together with Social Network-like capabilities.

As a matter of fact, let’s even go a step further.  Yahoo also has a huge portal presence.   Today, products like FriendFeed and it’s ilk are popular destination aggregators.  They save you running around to all those services.  But, I’ve also written that companies need to be careful hooking up to things like FriendFeed and publishing apis that facilitate disintermediating themselves.  Pretty soon they can become a feature of someone else’s product.  In that same article I suggested:

And what about the aggregators?  Why let someone new like FriendFeed even get a foothold?  Let’s take the grungiest, oldest, most out of date aggregator on the planet, and ask what we’d do if we were driving the bus.  I’m referring to Microsoft Outlook, of course.  It can sort of do RSS feeds already.  I would do a total facelift on the thing and kick it up a notch.  Make Outlook the be all and end all aggregator.  Make it do Twitter, blogs, and every other conceivable thing.  And while we’re at it, let’s make it do these things well.  Let’s Silverlight enable it.  Wouldn’t that be a kick in the head from Microsoft?  Isn’t just the thought of it a cautionary tale for how this can wind up?  As everyone becomes a service, we lower the friction.  As so often happens, and as is so counterintuitive, lowering friction here will reduce diversity of aggregators.  There’s just not enough differentiation to sustain a lot of players, so the Microsofts and Googles can win.  Maybe this is the value of Yahoo to Microsoft.  It can be the destination site for everyone else whom Microsoft can regard merely as a web service.

The strategic possibilities for Microsoft are fascinating.  The question is whether they see them clearly and whether they can execute on them.  What I can tell you is this kind of competitive strategy is exactly what they’ve always been good at. 

Woot!  The game is afoot!  Keep an eye on these Redmond guys…

Posted in saas, strategy | 1 Comment »

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