Way back in the mid-1980s Apple changed the course of the future with the Mac, the first mass-produced point and click personal computer. Since then Apple has advanced the state of the art so much that a new MacBook notebook looks and works much like a Mac notebook from 1992.
The iPhone ushered in a new generation of smartphones that work far better for users than the phones before it. That slim slab of aluminum, plastic, and glass featured touch buttons to activate apps and an onscreen keyboard for typing, pretty much like the iPhone 6s Plus of 2015. Yes, improvements show up in Mac and iPhone every year, but it seems as if both have hit a wall, Moore’s Law style.
Of Features And Physics
Every year Apple introduces a new Mac, iPhone, and iPad, and every year there are incremental improvements to nearly every component. Today’s iPhone 6s Plus is nearly as powerful as a MacBook running Intel’s latest mobile CPU. Apple’s iPad Pro models are faster and more powerful than many personal computers.
So, why is it that all these devices look, feel, and work more or less just like they always did?
Thanks Moore’s Law for the incremental increases in performance and capability. Laws are laws and sooner or later those of you who drive 10-mph over the speed limit will run afoul of one of those laws and get a ticket.
The number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years. The observation is named after Gordon E. Moore, the co-founder of Intel… whose 1965 paper described a doubling every year in the number of components per integrated circuit, and projected this rate of growth would continue for at least another decade. In 1975, looking forward to the next decade, he revised the forecast to doubling every two years.
Moore’s Law just met up with physics. For now, doubling the number of transistors in a CPU every couple of years just hit a wall. Apple’s iconic iPhone, a breakthrough among smartphone designs of just a few years ago, has hit a similar wall. Every new iPhone (and for that matter, almost every new PC, Mac, tablet, or iPad) receives only incremental improvements, just as Intel’s CPUs received incremental improvements year after year for decades, nearly doubling transistor count every few years, only to be stymied by physics (the tick and tock cycle of new CPUs is being changed).
Likewise, there’s only so much we can cram into the space of an iPhone. Bigger, longer lasting battery. Larger screen with higher resolution. More storage. More applications. Better camera. More iPhone specific CPU and specialty chip functions (Touch ID, motion processor, GPS, gyroscope, compass, etc.). In the end, the iPhone SE in 2016 looks and works much like the iPhone of 2007.
Smartphones, of which the iPhone is the iconic standard bearer, has hit a wall; the Moore’s Law threshold or wall for smartphone makers. Everything is a variation on a theme. The theme was orchestrated nearly 10 years ago. The tune hasn’t changed much since.
CPU design and manufacturing may have hit the physical wall of physics for Intel and other chipmakers, but what the future holds we do not know. New methods to cram more transistors onto a smaller slab of conductive material may expand Moore’s Law or create a new law with nearly unlimited upside. I worry about Apple and the iPhone. We’ve seen too many years of too many incremental variations on the same thing without a revolutionary innovation that points us to a new direction.
Just as Intel is looking for a revolution that will perpetuate Moore’s Law, Apple is ready for a new revolution.