Editor's Note: Technobabble is our occasional series looking at the more colorful sides of technology, including Elon Musk's outer space adventures featuring Big Data.
Chips bring in billions and employ millions. As one of the top 10 exports of the U.S., they matter.
Computer chips, that is. Since the potato chip industry has decided it wants to start being "healthier," computer chips are where our attention must fall.
But not even two months into the year and the semiconductor industry is already racking up headlines, from less-than-desirable shattering hardware security failings to quantum breakthroughs and massive year-over-year market growth.
It's a lot for anyone to keep track of, so here's the quick who's who, what's new and hullabaloo of the chips in 2018:
You can't have just one
Intel led the market for decades, boasting a 15.7% market share in 2016. But as of January, Samsung has toppled the semiconductor king, surpassing Intel's $63 billion in 2017 chip sales with $69 billion of its own.
Qualcomm and Broadcom come in at No. 3 and No. 5, respectively, and are in the midst of a long-running act where Broadcom keeps coming back with more flowers but Qualcomm keeps turning its head saying it wants chocolates (translation: M&A activity). Broadcom gave its "best and final" offer last week, and on Friday Qualcomm said, again, it was being undervalued, but the board is open to discussion of a potential deal.
Should the deal go through, it will mark some big changes in market composition. But in the meantime, other semiconductor companies — and increasingly tech companies — are gunning for the leaders' market shares and customer bases.
Nvidia has been riding atop the gaming and AI industries with its GPUs and saw record earnings in the fourth quarter. AMD, yet another Santa Clara-based semiconductor company, is trying to drive up its own market share with the new low priced, high performance Ryzen chip, which is set to stand in competition with Intel Core chips, reports Seeking Alpha.
Technology companies like Google and Apple, which were not historically hardware companies, have increasingly assumed hardware functions, often by acquiring semiconductor startups or companies. But building up a chip business is hard, and while that multi-year bet paid off for Apple, it failed for HP Inc., Motorola, IBM and Koninklijke Philips NV, reports Bloomberg.
Move over guac and queso — quantum and AI are here
Moore's law may be done, but the improvements will keep coming.
One key focus moving forward is the great quantum race. The industry is bating its breath and waiting for the breakthroughs Google and Microsoft are expected to announce any day now, but in the meantime Intel came out with a silicon chip solution using spin qubits that could offer an edge with compact size, strength and the ability to withstand higher temperatures.
Intel also made news last month with the announcement of a 49 qubit test chip, the largest quantum chip to date, in a move that elevated the company to the competitive ranks of IBM and Google, the industry leaders in quantum computing.
Meanwhile, artificial intelligence has been poking its nose into everyone's business, and chip companies are refocusing around the advanced technology as businesses try to incorporate it into more products. After all, even the new iPhone X has chips embedded with AI tech.
Google has been working on its AI hardware, or tensor processing units, for years. On Monday, the company announced Cloud TPUs would be available on the Google Cloud Platform for machine learning experts. The same day, The Information reported that Amazon is also reportedly working on designing AI chips for its intelligent assistant, Alexa.
The crypto boom has been driving a spike in GPUs for chip companies like AMD and Nvidia, though long-term impacts remain to be seen, according to Seeking Alpha.
And you thought you'd get to the end without reading about Spectre and Meltdown
The year kicked off with the chip industry essentially receiving a slap on the wrist.
The harsh reality of cyberthreats in hardware left the tech world in a full scale "meltdown," and while chip security is sure to receive more focus in the coming months, it doesn't change the fact the chip industry's street cred is shot. As of Thursday, Intel is facing two securities class action lawsuits and 30 customer class action lawsuits, according to the company's 10-K filings.
Outside the fact that no one is safe anymore, the chip industry is worth keeping a tight eye on because it is a lot of money. Just think of all the potato chips eaten on Valentine's Day and multiply that by a factor of millions and add a few more zeros for good measure.