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Analysts see five technologies as key to future

Extreme Ultraviolet Lithography

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By Dan Miller

(IDG) -- Moore's law declares that semiconductors will double in power every 18 months. If that's going to hold true, engineers must find ways to cram ever more circuits into ever smaller wafers of silicon. But current chipmaking technologies are about to hit a wall.

To make a microchip, technicians shine light through a stencil of the circuit pattern. The light travels through lenses, which focus the pattern onto a silicon wafer covered with light-sensitive chemicals. When the wafer is coated with acid, the desired circuitry emerges from the silicon.

The problem is that creating smaller circuits requires shorter wavelengths of light. Current technology uses lightwaves about 240 nanometers long -- so-called deep ultraviolet light -- to create circuits about 100 nanometers wide. (A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter.) But smaller wavelengths won't work because they're absorbed by conventional lenses; they have trouble simply traveling through air.

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That's where physicists at the Lawrence Livermore Lab in California could help. They've been playing with extreme ultraviolet light -- with wavelengths from 10 to 100 nanometers -- since the Reagan administration, as part of their work on the "Star Wars" defense system. In 1997, a consortium including Advanced Micro Devices, Intel and Motorola offered the lab $250 million to figure out ways to use EUV light in chip manufacturing.

The scientists have made significant progress. The key: using mirrors instead of lenses. If they succeed, circuits could shrink in width to 10 nanometers -- that, in turn, could make microprocessors 100 times more powerful than today's. The first EUV-based chips are expected to hit store shelves by 2005.

Organic Light-Emitting Devices

Someday, flat panels -- like the screen on your laptop -- will be the standard displays for computers, TVs and cell phones. But today's most common flat panels -- liquid crystal displays (LCDs) -- are expensive, hard-to-manufacture electricity hogs. That's why monitor makers are all a-goggle over organic light-emitting devices, known as OLEDs.

Originally developed by Kodak in the late '70s and since refined by a host of companies (including Cambridge Display Technology, DuPont, IBM, NEC, Philips and Universal Display), OLEDs are based on something called electroluminescence. Certain organic materials emit light when an electric current passes through them. Sandwich such materials between two electrodes and you've got a display.

In addition to soaking up less electricity than LCDs, OLEDs are easier to manufacture. That simplicity, along with lower materials costs, makes them cheaper to build. Yet they're brighter than LCDs, with better color saturation and a wider viewing angle.

And because they can be quite thin, OLEDs make all sorts of sci-fi scenarios possible. Imagine stock quotes scrolling across your pen, or movies playing on your handheld. Already, Pioneer has released a car radio-cum-navigation device in Japan that uses a 64-by-256-pixel OLED screen to display traffic conditions. Motorola's Timeport P8767 phone, which debuted in Japan in September, sports an OLED screen. Seiko plans to release an OLED phone capable of full-color video in 2002.

Optical Switching

Telecoms are burying thousands of miles of fiber under the streets of America, laying the groundwork for the superfast network of the future. There's just one problem: The hardware currently used to direct the flow of data isn't fast enough to keep up with the traffic on all that glass. Optical switching could help.

Optical networks use beams of light, rather than electrons, to carry data. Today, most of these networks use so-called optoelectronic switches to direct network traffic. These switches convert incoming light signals into electronic form, examine their network addressing, then convert them back to optical signals and send them on their way. Unfortunately, the conversion process is awfully slow.

The next generation of devices -- known as photonic switches, pure optical switches or simply optical switches -- eliminate that conversion step, making them fast enough to keep up with today's fiber networks. The payoff: faster performance and higher network capacity. Purely optical switches do have their drawbacks: Because they rely on a series of microscopic mechanical mirrors to do their work, they may not be as reliable as the old optoelectronic variety. Still, expect these optical switches, from vendors including Calient, Cisco, Nortel and Tellium, to be deployed at critical intersections on the Net later this year.

Presence Technology

Going online is like walking into a dark room. Nobody knows you're there except you and the doorman (which in this case is your ISP). But if something called presence technology -- which detects when you're online and what kind of device you're using -- catches on, it'll be like turning on the lights.

Presence technology has its roots in instant messaging. Log on to an IM service and your arrival is immediately announced to your "buddy list" -- other registered users you've selected to be alerted to your online presence. Internet engineers are working on ways to extend this announcement process beyond messaging, so that every time you log onto the Net, regardless of the device you're using, your presence will be felt. Telephony geeks are particularly enthused: Placing phone calls over the Net would make a lot more sense if you knew the other person was online.

Microsoft is among those banking on presence technology. Its new HailStorm services platform depends on it. When someone tries to get in touch with you, the HailStorm system will detect your network location and level of accessibility: Are you at your desk? In a meeting? In transit? Depending upon the answer, the system will e-mail, page or call you.

Before that can happen, technologists must solve the interoperability issue. Just as America Online IM users can't communicate with people on other services, there's no universal way to announce someone's presence on the Net. (AOL Time Warner is the parent company of CNN.com.) The Internet Engineering Task Force (an ad-hoc group that helps keep the Net humming) has a working group cogitating on the problem. But the IETF process of turning a draft specification into an established protocol can take years. Microsoft waits for no one: As the company rolls out HailStorm over the next couple of years, look for presence technology to start insinuating itself into your online life.

Business Intelligence

No, it's not an oxymoron. touted by IBM, Microsoft, Oracle and other titans of corporate computing, business intelligence is the fad du jour in the database biz. The idea is simple: Consolidate the gigantic quantity of raw data that today's typical enterprise generates, in all its various guises, into information that people -- middle managers as well as database technicians -- can access, understand and act upon.

Business intelligence is the latest step in the evolutionary development of corporate data tools. A couple of years ago, everybody talked about "data mining" and "knowledge management." Both entailed extracting useful nuggets of information -- about customers, sales trends, manufacturing, whatever -- out of piles of corporate data.

Today's business intelligence systems improve on these predecessors by presenting their findings in more useful formats -- using advanced data visualization tools -- and by deploying artificial intelligence to look for patterns human users might not look for. A bookseller, for example, might use traditional data tools to find out which kinds of books sell best on weekends (and adjust her Sunday book section ad strategy accordingly). But business intelligence software might show her a wholly unexpected correlation between, say, her advertisement for the Oprah Winfrey opus and sales of fishing guidebooks.

Business-intelligence technology has already spawned some fierce competition. Established software companies like Computer Associates, IBM, Informix, Microsoft, Oracle and SAP, along with younger competitors like Business Objects, Cognos, MicroStrategy and Moreover.com, are vying for their share of a market that's expected to grow from $3.5 billion this year to $8.8 billion in 2004.







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