The Post-Silicon Era

Masamitsu “Matt” Aoki has updated his detailed charts of “Build-Up Types of Printed Wiring Boards and Their Applications in Japan” (Version 14.1) and “Thin Types of Printed Wiring Boards and Their Applications in Japan” (Version 24.1). They are both now current through June 2014. Write to us at gene@weiner-intl.com if you wish a copy.

 Who will share in IBM’s vision of the future? During the next 5 years IBM will invest $3 billion in R&D for “the post-silicon era.” Which equipment and material suppliers will partner with it? Who else has such a forward looking budget? According to CIO Bernie Meyerson, the investments include programs in areas such as III-V materials expected to be used around the 5nm node, which some say could be the last generation of silicon-based chip technology. They also include a broad set of programs ranging from 3D chip packaging to computer architectures such as quantum and neural processing and post-silicon chip materials such as carbon nanotubes and graphene. “This is not about semiconductors per se but a broad statement about reinventing computing,” he said. Today’s silicon CMOS processes will hit atomic limits (a brick wall) somewhere around the 5nm node in about 2020. Many of the IBM programs are about finding new techniques that will drive hardware performance beyond that point. “The real issue is silicon goes quantum mechanical at these dimensions. It no longer works. At this time, there is no consensus on what’s next.” However, “we still have a 5-10 year horizon” to find solutions.

 Someone forgot to tell them…

…about the economic recovery. Microsoft will chop 18,000 jobs in the next year as it lays off 14% of its workforce. 2/3 of the cut will come from the phone and tablet work force in order to eliminate the post Nokia acquisition bulge. I guess CEO Satya Nadella won’t be running for US president in the near future.0

It was not too long ago when “everyone” just wanted a very small cellphone. Smartphones with screens larger than 5.5″ seem to be cutting into the tablet market, especially those with 7 to 7.9″screens which accounted for 58% of the market in 2013. Tablet shipments the first quarter of 2014 declined about 5% from the same period last year. This is the first time such a drop has been noted in tablet sales since their introduction.

Good move, Ray! Have you noticed the shortage of RF substrates? Isola announced increased production of and a 24-hr response service to provide designers with a turnkey solution for all the calculations, testing, characterization and material recommendations to fill the gap with its “low loss materials.” Target applications include 23GHz, and 76-79Hz frequencies used in advanced driver frequencies.

It is not too early …

… to start planning your participation and attendance at the early key Fall events. Have you wondered if the lost board business has all gone overseas or if something else is occurring? Have advances in packaging and system technology supplanted portions? Are segments morphing into newer technologies? Do you know what these opportunities (threats to your conventional business) are?

You will have an opportunity to view, discuss, and evaluate, these at the rebranded 2nd annual Electronic Systems Technologies Conference and Exhibition to be held at the IPC TechSummit in Raleigh, North Carolina October 28-30. Some of the topics presented and discussed at the original held in Las Vegas have already begun to move into the mainstream. Chaired once again by Intel’s Dr. Senol Pekin, this year’s event has already attracted key interconnect industry figures who will discuss trends, what matters to them, and new technologies.

It is also worth noting that Dr. Michael Osterman, director of CALCE at the University of Maryland will chair the 8th Annual Tin Whiskers Conference during TechSummit.

It’s a cut-and-paste world. One of my Korean business associates, a retired research engineer, says that Korea is a “Copy and Paste Technology” country. Korean companies buy the minimum order for state of the art equipment from Japanese companies and conduct a detailed tear down analysis. From this reverse “R&D,” they build their own equipment with minor modifications. There is no innovative idea in the new machines — the only difference is a much lower cost. The executive teams from Samsung Electronics recognize the lack of innovation from their engineering staff, and are encourage its R&D departments to generate new ideas. Unfortunately, nothing new has come from them over the last several years. One R&D director told me that he has more than 50 engineers with PhDs from universities in Japan and the US, but none of them can come up with any creative ideas. From the engineers view, one R&D manager grumbled that his department forwards many proposals to the executive managing teams, but none of them are ever accepted. The executive teams ask for accurate forecasts from potential products or ideas, but the R&D teams cannot accurately forecast the potential for a product that is not in the market. — Dominique N.

 

The Unsung IBM

As CEO Tim Cook shakes up the Apple management team and struggles to keep Apple at the top of the hyper-competitive electronics heap, I am reminded of the last time Apple saw such a fundamental challenge to its mojo.

It was the John Sculley era, when the former Pepsi exec was tapped to add some juice to the lagging MacIntosh maker. Sales rose tenfold during his five-year reign, but the tension rose between the Apple board, Sculley  and ex CEO Steve Jobs, and both ultimately were given their walking papers.

That was some 20 years ago, and while the PC wars on the Left Coast were taking their toll on Apple, a similar story was emerging in upstate New York. There, IBM, long the king of the DOS-based computer equipment world, was being overrun by competitors like HP, Compaq, Dell and Digital Equipment and had seen its stock slide more than $100 to the low $40s. Some were going so far as to predict the end was near.

About that time, the editor of the magazine I worked for visited IBM and came back with this warning: “IBM remains a manufacturer of the top rank,” a firm response to those who believed that Big Blue was about to fade to black. And sure enough, IBM overcame its own product hurdles and regained its crown.

Not that many notice. While others make news for either their stunning profits (Apple, Samsung) or stunning slides (Dell, HP), IBM has gone about its business in the professional, button-down way that its founder Thomas Watson would both recognize and approve of. While others may grab the headlines, IBM is still the bluest of the blue chips, a company that others should spend more time understanding and emulating. Through management changes and computer fads (mainframe to PC to the cloud), IBM has shown an unprecedented ability to adjust and stay relevant.

I’m not sure whether Apple under Tim Cook can duplicate the success of Steve Jobs. That’s like following Babe Ruth, the quintessential game changer, and no person should have to do that. But I do know that no matter where Apple is in 20 years, IBM will still be at the top of the computing pile.

What Should HP Do?

The news out of Palo Alto isn’t good.

Now, that won’t exactly come as a shock to most observers, as HP has been flat for some time. But CEO Meg Whitman yesterday acknowledged that the pain will intensify before the patient recovers, telling analysts that revenues would fall 11 to 13% over the next fiscal year.


In real dollars, that’s a drop of up to $16.5 billion, roughly the size of Jabil Circuit, or, the companies ranked No. 15 to 50 on the CIRCUITS ASSEMBLY Top 50.

Worse, Whitman said not to expect a turnaround before 2016.

Give Whitman credit for honesty, although keep in mind that, by setting the bar low, she raises the prospects for future knighthood should HP’s recovery come faster.

But what Whitman did not disclose is what, exactly, HP’s prescription for saving itself is. In all likelihood, that strategy will focus on paring of the company’s core product lines — servers, PCs and printer. Perhaps it will follow IBM’s lead and sell or spin off its PC unit, an idea that the company itself has floated in the past.

It says here, however, the company HP should be emulating is Apple. HP once was as respected as any business in the tech industry, admired for its stable and forward-thinking leadership, its commitment to research and development, and a manufacturer of the top rank. Today, that path is more remembrance than reality. The company has long since moved away from its manufacturing roots, outsourcing almost anything it could. (Foxconn has been a major beneficiary.) What HP, along with Dell and many of the other big PC makers, is learning the hard way is, you give away the family jewels at your own peril. By offloading its fixed assets — and that includes its people — HP also gave away its competitive advantage. It’s become a parody of itself, a business confined to imitation, not innovation. Sure, HP has to retool, but it should do so by going back to its roots, much like Apple did when Steve Jobs was welcomed back after 11 years wandering the desert.

“Invent” was a favorite marketing campaign of HP. The company should practice what it preaches, bring design and manufacturing back in-house, and strive to be the technology leader it once was. It can be done. But HP has to be committed to the task.

 

H-P Bets on the Cloud

Hewlett-Packard designed and built its first computer in 1966. Has it designed and built its last?

Various Wall Street sources are reporting today that the world’s second largest electronics company will spin off its PC unit in order to concentrate on servers and services. If true, it marks the end to an extraordinary era — one that saw H-P race neck-and-neck for years with IBM and Digital Equipment in the mainframe space, then after falling behind Dell in PCs, snatch up Compaq in a move that was generally panned but turned out to be a masterstroke.

Still, over the past several years PCs  became an ever lower-margin business filled with low-cost competitors. Moreover, the emergence of shared-server computing — aka, “the cloud” — posed a threat to those who poured resources into branded laptops and desktops.

It says here this move is H-P’s way of saying that it, too, believes cloud computing is the future, and the money to be made will come from selling the heavy-duty hardware, not billions of “dummy” terminals that are hooked in to it.

Handing Over the Reins

Great article in this week’s Newsweek by Yale dean Dr. Jeffrey Sonnenfeld recapping the struggle a technology innovator has in ensuring his or her vision lives on after he/she leaves the scene. Key quote:

How do you maintain the DNA that the founders have imprinted into the business? … Time and again, they share a disdain for any distraction about their own mortality. Like monarchs, they often believe they can and should reign as long as they live.

One nit: While this tale of hits and misses among ground-breaking tech companies (Apple, Digital Equipment Corp., IBM, Polaroid) makes for a fascinating trip back through time, Dr. Sonnenfeld doesn’t save much discussion on how to properly prepare your own bench for someday manning the ship.

Focus? Who Needs It?

From Jim Collins to Michael Porter, the latest generation of management gurus argued companies must focus on core competencies and shed all other activities.

Just what makes a “core competency,” however, is always in flux. And as electronics companies see sales plunging like cliff divers, they are quickly redefining the terms.

With today’s launch of Nokia Booklet 3G,Nokia, long synonymous with mobile phones, has now officially entered the netbook market.

But Nokia is just the latest in a string of high-profile OEMs that are seemingly trying to jump-start their revenues by going after what are increasingly commodity markets.

Dell, in conjunction with China Mobile, is said to be looking at jumping in the mobile phone wars. In doing so, the world’s No. 2 computer maker would join Hewlett-Packard, Acer and Asustek as PC OEMs that either have launched or are planning to debut smartphones.

Meanwhile, China Mobile, AT&T and Far EasTone Telecommunications are among the mobile providers now pitching netbooks.

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Roger Yuen, Acer’s vice president of Asia-Pacific smart handheld business group, is quoted as saying “it is relatively easy for PC makers to make smartphones because the two devices share similar components and software.”

Which makes sense to analysts, I suppose, but is something of an insider’s joke in electronics manufacturing. After all, what doesn’t have Intel Inside?

The moves are highly questionable. As this article today in the Wall Street Journal notes, “Analysts say PC makers are unlikely to reap significant benefits in the near term as they need to develop better relationships with mobile operators to sell their products. It will also take time to develop differentiated products and market their own brands in a segment where consumers already have many choices.”

The WSJ hedges, adding, “[M]any agree that longer-term, PC makers have a chance to gain share which would generate a new source of revenue growth and improve overall profitability.”

I don’t see it. These are extraordinarily competitive markets, flush with big-name brands with deep pockets. IBM. Nokia. Samsung. Dell. H-P. The list goes on. None is going to give in without a (very expensive) fight.

Meanwhile, the broader markets are showing some signs of leveling: Worldwide mobile phone sales fell 6.1% year-over-year to 286.1 million units during the second quarter. And the battle for the niche markets – like smartphones – may already be over. Nokia holds a 47% share of that market, and RIM has been entrenched in second place.

New players have found the going bumpy. Take for example, Apple’s much-ballyhooed entry, the iPhone. Measured in terms of style and pizzazz, it has performed exceedingly well. In terms of units sold, it’s another story. Apple shipped 5.4 million units in the second quarter, Gartner says, good for 2.4% market share. Very likely, Apple makes the equipment as a medium to sell its highly profitable catalog of digital music.

Given that, and given that few companies boast Apple’s marketing and design savvy, it’s hard to fathom why a company would risk dominance in one market to attempt to conquer such foreboding – and possibly worthless – terrain.

It brings to mind one more business truism: That the grass – and the profits – is always greener on the other side of the fence.

Blue Sun

IBM’s potential merger with Sun is hardly a done deal, and reporters at The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere now think the deal may be off. (For the record, neither OEM has yet commented on the deal.)

Which, for EMS companies, is probably just as well. Deutsche Bank estimates a merged IBM-Sun would be able to cut as much as $1 billion in costs from the bottom line. Some of that, no doubt, would come from deleting redundant product lines and even greater buying leverage with the companies’ respective suppliers.

Sales to Big Blue make up about 10% of the revenues at Celestica, Benchmark and Sanmina-SCI, five to 10% of Jabil’s revenue, and two to five percent of Flextronics’ sales. Several of those companies supply significant volumes to Sun as well.

Faced with the pullbacks of Nokia and Alcatel-Lucent, which took some $6 billion combined out of the EMS industry’s collective pockets, word that a deal is off should touch off industry rejoicing, even if just for a day.

If anyone has reason to be sad about the reported deal’s collapse, it would be Sun, which was already on shaky ground. Instead of Big Blue, Sun might turn out to be just blue.