LAS VEGAS — In one of the greatest disappearing acts of our times, the microprocessor turned 25 this year and hardly anyone noticed.
The recent Comdex show here was a telling barometer. Although the nation's premier exposition for computers, computers and chips were overshadowed by the Internet. That's what speakers talked about; vendors showed off Internet-related products. The silicon chip, meanwhile, was relegated to a museum exhibit.
Ironically, this is good news for the chip industry, analysts say, because it means the microprocessor has become an accepted part of everyday life. "The technologies are starting to disappear into the background ... for the same reason that the road system, and the telephone systems, and the power system are not necessarily topics of conversation," says Vinton Cerf, senior vice president of data architecture for MCI's Data and Information Services division, who is widely known as the father of the Internet. "Computers ... are being embedded into appliances and other devices and not just manifested as personal computers."
The microprocessor has become so commonplace in its first quarter century, it's pass. For example:
*In 1971, cars relied on a variety of mechanical controls. Today, microprocessors handle much of the work. Some cars contain as many as 50 to 70 of them.
*The chips fueled the boom in electronic games.
*Today, they power everything from microwave ovens and cellular telephones to airplane cockpits and missile systems. Even farmers use them on cow and hog tags to regulate the amount of food each animal gets from automatic feeding machines.
And, of course, the microprocessor was the impetus for the personal computer, which has grown into a multibillion-dollar industry worldwide.
"I don't think there's been anything like it," says Albert Yu, senior vice president at Intel Corp. in Santa Clara, Calif., which created the first microprocessor. "The closest analogy is a motor. You have zillions of motors in your home, but you don't even recognize them."
Microprocessors are the same way, with one crucial difference, Mr. Yu says. They have grown incredibly powerful over the past quarter century. The microprocessor has gone from a 2,300-transistor sliver of silicon, capable of powering a calculator, to a 5.5-million-transistor powerhouse, containing more computing power in a single chip than existed in the entire world in 1971.
And that is just the beginning. The exponential growth in microprocessor power is expected to continue for at least the next 15 years, says Andrew Grove, president and chief executive of Intel. He predicts the microprocessor of 2001 will pack 200 times more transistors and run 250 times faster than today's advanced chips. Such advances should lead to machines that can comfortably understand human speech, recognize handwriting, and create virtual three-dimensional worlds that will make today's video games look as primitive as the Model T.
To achieve this power, chip engineers will have to keep shrinking the size of transistors. Today's chips use transistors that are 1/30th the size of the first microprocessor. By 2011, Mr. Grove estimates, engineers will shrink the sizes down to one-fifth of today's widths. Stacked side by side, some 1,500 of these future transistors would fit in the width of a human hair.
That is doable, Grove says, but it will take a lot of money. The first factory Intel built after developing its pioneering microprocessor cost the company $300 million to build and equip. By the turn of the century, the cost may reach $10 billion, he estimates. Those kinds of investments will require continued growth in the PC and other industries that use the microprocessor.
So far, there's no indication that sales will falter. Several analysts estimate worldwide sales of PCs will jump by more than 60 percent and reach 100 million units by the year 2000.
Focused as it is on the Internet, the computer industry may not be paying much attention to chip advances. But it will continue to reap the benefits of the smaller, faster, and cheaper slivers of silicon.