John Markoff Biography

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John Markoff, of the New York Times is one of the leading writers of technology of our time. After a few years of freelance writing, he began writing for a technical publication, Infoworld, in 1981. Four years later, he became an editor at Byte Magazine. In 1988 he reported that Robert Tappan Morris was the author of what would become known as the internet worm ( And now he has written an article last week outlining what could be the most significant change in electrical engineering in the last four decades, when the modern integrated-circuit replaced the vacuum tube. His article ran in the San Diego Union-Tribune, among other publications, on January 27, 2007.

Markoff is reporting that Intel has designed a new generation of microprocessor chips. This new chip is so powerful and energy efficient that it will make possible demanding tasks that was once thought to be impossible, such as viewing videos at length on cell phones, with current technology.

The reason why this was thought to be impossible was because as transistors (the component that makes up a microprocessor chip) got smaller, they have a higher tendency to leak current. This leaking of current is a result of thinner insulating materials and causes the Microprocessor chip to be inefficient, heat up, and eventually breakdown.

The manufacturing process of the microprocessor chip has been continuously improving over the last forty years, but many experts for years had thought that it was not possible to continue at the same pace. This pace is known as Moore’s Law. Moore’s law states that the number of transistors on a chip doubles approximately every two years. With Intel’s announcement, the chip maker is back on pace with Moore’s Law. “This is evolutionary as opposed to revolutionary, nut it will generate a big sigh of relief,” said Vivek Subramanian who is an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences at the University of California Berkeley. A big sigh of relief he says, only for the engineers at Intel. All the competitors are shaking in their boots per say. While much of the industry is building chips at a scale of 1,000 transistors fitting in the width of a single human hair, known as 90-nanometer technology, Intel began making chips at 65-nanometer technology two years ago; this was nine months prior to its closest competitor. Now Intel has moved upward and onward to the next stage of refinement where now with this new chip they are reaching to 45-nanometer technology. IBM was quick to respond that they too are on the verge of releasing a similar chip, due to be introduced in the first quarter of 2008.

What made it possible for Intel to design this new chip was in part to finding a new material to use as an insulator. The new insulator is composed of an alloy of hafnium, a metallic element that was currently being used in filaments and electrodes. This hafnium will replace the use of silicon dioxide, which is currently used as the insulating material in microprocessor chips. By using this new insulating material it will help conquer, at least temporarily, the most significant obstacle the semiconductor industry is currently facing: the tendency of transistors to leak power as they are reduced in size.

This development could not have come at a better time for Intel, say many experts. Intel had been recovering from a strategic wrong turn when it pushed its chips to extremely high clock speeds. With this obsession with clock speeds, Intel had fallen behind its competitors in shifting to low-power alternatives. While the industry focused on speed for many years, Intel led that race. When the industry shifted gears and focused on using multiple low-power microprocessor chips known as “cores,” Intel quickly fell behind. Now with this new 45-nanometer generation, Intel has the luxury of having higher performance or lower power, while still increasing the number of cores per chip.

Intel has plans of using this chip not only in computers, but in other consumer electronics as well, such as cell phones. While the development of this chip is considered evolutionary by many experts, the potential uses of this new chip are quite revolutionary.

Subsequently, IBM announced that they too plan on using hafnium as the primary insulator in their new chips.

John Markoff has broken an amazing story with this article about Intel’s latest plan to once again attempt to take the crown seat in the semiconductor industry. He released this story two days prior to Intel’s plans of announcing this development. I found Markoff’s article intriguing. His years of experience ring true with his concise, but not overly detailed, explanation of what a processor chip is and how it is built. The way he has written his article, it could be enjoyed equally by the most educated engineer or even the average hobbyist.

BIBLIOGRAPHYMarkoff, John. “Intel reveals smaller, faster chip.” San Diego Union-Tribune.

27January2007: January, 2007. 31January 2007