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While I understand that a new Kindle Fire at $199 MRSP is significantly more than a dime novel, I assert that today's launch of the new Amazon tablets takes us one step closer to the "paperback computer" becoming a reality. Here the term paperback computer isn't just a clever play on words regarding the bookish seller of these devices. Instead, it's a reference to a conjecture introduced in 1992 by the venerable PBS series "The Machine That Changed the World". (Yes, a 19 year old reference - just bear with me for a paragraph ...)
You may recall that this series was a comprehensive documentary on the history of computing and information science, and that it also made some impressively accurate predictions of computing's future. Specifically, Episode 3, literally titled "The Paperback Computer", opens with a tour of a historic "chained library". The books in this library -- both handwritten by monks, and mechanically printed by "gen 1" printing presses -- are literally chained to the shelves to prevent theft.
The narrator goes on to state that because books were so expensive to create, "[at the time] the idea that regular citizens would own books was ludicrous." Pausing for a second to let the viewer chortle in self-congratulation that they already owned a Macintosh, IBM PC XT, or Amiga, the scene shifted to a contemporary university library where all the computers were chained to the desks to prevent them from walking away. The point was well made: while in 1992 computers had become personal, they were still expensive enough that they needed to be locked down.
Fast forward 19 years, and I assert that today's launch of the new Kindles shows the paperback computer is close at hand since the Kindles enable instant access to Amazon's complete catalog of media, and the embedded wireless connection lets users roam free from any chains. Plus: at $199 it's not the end of the word if the device gets lost, damaged, or stolen. (Of course, the device itself is not the $9.99 range of an "I won't be heartbroken if it gets lost" paperback book. Indeed, I predict that over the next ~5 years there is much revenue to be harvested -- or at least costs recovered -- from hardware sales before we see a return to the old cellular contract model of a free device with an N year subscription.)
But what does all this mean for our industry? By coincidence, the implications for EDA are well spelled out in a recent post by "EDA360 Insider" Steve Leibson that reviews a bold article by EDA-focused venture capitalist Jim Hogan. Hogan persuasively argues that EDA must enable customers to make sure "the user experience is never compromised." This boils down to enabling true SoC design, where:"SoC 3.0 software is king and programmability is the key, a departure from the hardware-focused era of gates-and-switches chip design. Application software defines the differentiated value of the system for the consumer." In a nutshell, as Steve Leibson meticulously documents in his review, these new mobile devices are all effective representations of the EDA360 vision of "System Realization".
The good news is that I believe Cadence and other industry players are well positioned to help customers make this transition. Speaking for Cadence, witness our parade of deliverables in this space - the Virtual System Platform, Rapid Prototyping Platform, Palladium XP, Hosted Design Solutions (a/k/a EDA-optimized cloud computing), and the new Verification IPs for emerging mobile standards announced just this week.
That said, I think "we" (Cadence and the industry) still have a have a long way to go before we completely internalize this sea change. And if we fail to stay ahead of these trends, the consequences could be quite extreme. Specifically, the Hogan article warns that external forces could even force the EDA industry to go back to the future and return to the foundry-owned ASIC tools model of the 80's and 90's (yikes!) Thus the question going forward is whether we can evolve our businesses deeper into the systems domain beyond the steps we're taking today. Time will tell, so for now I welcome you to speculate along with me in the comments below, or 1:1 offline.
Joe Hupcey III
On Twitter: @jhupcey -- http://twitter.com/jhupcey
P.S. To put a finer point on the paperback computer end state: The central premise of this idea is that the device becomes so cheap that you really don't care if it gets lost. Consequently, assume for the moment all the data you do care about is safe inside some secure cloud computing area. As such, only the loss of physical device itself is at issue and/or local storage will be mirrored in the cloud and wiped from the device remotely in the event of loss. Further set aside the classic "free phone with contract" subsidized business model for a moment.
Hence, what is the ultimate COGS target for a $9.99, "I don't care if it gets lost" paperback computer? A cursory internet search of vanity publishers turned up the following: 10,000 units of a self-published, standard 288 page 5.5"x 8.5" paperback book, with a single color laminated cover, costs around $1 per unit. To say the least, the EDA industry, IP creators, and system integrators sure have our work cut out!
Reference LinksAmazon's new tablets
EDA360 Insider: What's unique about the new $199 Android-based Amazon Kindle Fire tablet?
EDA360 Insider: "Jim Hogan coins "Jobs' Law" and nails it to the door of System and SoC Realization"
Jim Hogan: "Job's Law"
The EDA360 Vision