George Gilder eyes the future, and it’s analog

Gilder has trumpeted the virtues of analog designs before and this book is even more gushing than is usual for george.

Gilder has trumpeted the virtues of analog designs before and this book is even more gushing than is usual for george.

I first encountered the economist George Gilder-who today is a well-known high-tech book author and guru-in the mid-1980s in San Francisco at an International Solid-State Circuits Conference (ISSCC). Then, as now, ISSCC was the place to hob-nob with the wild and crazy brain surgeons of the integrated-circuit world. George was writing a piece for Forbes and I was covering the event for the late-­lamented High Technology. As fellow scribes so often do, George attempted to pick my brain on the relative merits of sundry developments as reported in the excruciatingly mind-numbing papers that are so typical of the venerable (and much-venerated) ISSCC.

Gilder was actually hunting for the then famous (or notorious, but that’s another story) analog IC designer and certifiable maniac Porsche driver Bob Widlar of National Semiconductor. Widlar was the inventor of the operational amplifier (op-amp) IC. And, yes, Virginia, analog ICs were big in those days, if only because they were incredibly difficult to design and manufacture and the people who made analog ICs successfully were (a) very rich and (b) worshiped like gods. Widlar was both to the nth degree, and he hated journalists with a passion. I didn’t see Widlar at that ISSCC although he was reputed to have sidled in under a heavy disguise-and sidled out before any of the assembled throng of reporters could catch him.

Meanwhile, my new friend and picker of journalistic brains was off chattering to the ISSCC digerati about the latest trends in the digital IC world. Eventually, George’s ­extensive research saw the light of day as a well-deserved best-seller, Microcosm: the Quantum Revolution in Economics and Technology, (The Free Press, New York, 1990) and later, yet another heavily-researched best-seller: Telecosm: How Infinite Bandwidthwill ­Revolutionize Our World, (The Free Press, New York, NY, 2002). Gilder has written at least a dozen books, ­mostly on some aspect of the rather arcane world of IC (analog and digital) designers and manufacturers.

Now comes Gilder’s latest monograph, The Silicon Eye: How a Silicon Valley Company Aims to Make All CurrentComputers, Cameras and Cell Phones Obsolete (The Free Press, New York, NY, 2005). This short book-a mere 275 pages of actual text-­reflects Gilder’s continuing obsession with the ­movers and shakers of the analog-IC design world. This time, the object of his laser-like attention is no less than the enigmatic Caltech Professor Carver Mead, who makes Bob Widlar look like an altar boy. Gilder has trumpeted the virtues of analog designs before and this book is even more gushing than is usual for George as he details the life and times of Carver Mead and his fumbling foray into the real world with a tiny start-up company, Foveon of Santa Clara, CA.

Using designs from Mead’s Caltech research labs, Foveon has developed a sensitive CMOS image ­sensor that detects red, green, and blue light at every pixel location, unlike a conventional CCD in which each pixel can resolve only one color. Thus, the Foveon chip is much more efficient than its digital counterparts. The problem is that, so far, there has been only lukewarm interest from the giant Japanese camera makers who are producing boatloads of conventional hefty eight-megapixel CCDs (and designing bigger chips just as fast as they can). The camera makers have little incentive to invest in manufacturing untried technologies.

None of these corporate shenannigans fazes our George, of course. Unflinchingly modest as ever, Gilder brazenly claims that “Foveon’s color imaging will become the analog first step in a long process of cerebration that will end in simulating ever larger reaches of the human brain and extending back over fibers into a new global consciousness suffused with color and light.” Phew!

Well, I wouldn’t bet the farm on Foveon, just yet. Carver Mead may be a top-notch analog designer but he has had a notably less-than-stellar career as a businessman. As of this writing, only three pitifully undistinguished companies have licensed Foveon’s X3 technology-Japanese SLR vendor Sigma, a company well below the radar of most SLR buyers; industrial camera maker Hanvision; and the much-reduced Polaroid whose X3 camera is made in China by World Wide Licenses, hardly a household name.

“Video at 11, folks!”

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