by Bernard Golden

What the Intel Museum Says About Open Source

Jul 31, 20063 mins

If you live in Pennsylvania, you visit the Hershey museum. In Michigan, the Henry Ford museum. Since we live in Silicon Valley, we visited the Intel museum on Saturday. Starting them early, the museum put on a class for children teaching them the rudiments of binary representation via a bead stringing exercise. The children first calculated the binary representation of the characters in their names, then strung 0 and 1 beads onto a lanyard to make a keychain with their binary initials on it. Definitely enjoyable for my twin sons. The museum puts on a different class each month; August’s is on circuit design — I wonder what that is like.

The museum is pretty interesting, especially if you have a bent toward pondering the impact of chips on our daily lives. They have a display of telephones from early dial sets to late model tiny cell phones, including some of the early brick cell phones (don’t know what the dial sets are doing there, and the size of the early cell phones and the willingness of people to lug them around is a testament to the usefulness of cellular service).

There’s a very touching tribute to Intel co-founder Robert Noyce, including his resignation letter from Fairchild Semiconductor (he wanted to leave management of a large bureaucracy and get his hands dirty in a new venture; a precursor to today’s Valley), along with photos and documents about him. Looking at the exhibit brings home how young the high-tech industry is; after all, one of its giants died only 16 years ago at the early age of 62.

Most striking to me, however, was a small exhibit tucked into the back of the museum. On a small pedestal is an actual copy of the Electronics Magazine issue in which Gordon Moore first described Moore’s Law (actually, he did not describe it as a law, probably being too modest to inflate his importance); to wit: “the transistor density of semiconductor chips would double roughly every 18 months.”  You can read the original article on the Intel museum website here.

While Moore did not trumpet his views as a marvelous discovery, Electronics did. It titled the article “Cramming more components onto integrated circuits.” With that, they distilled the incredible impact of digital processing into six words. Six little words that transformed our world and are reshaping it daily.

There is an open source slant on this. While contemporary open source hagiography depicts Richard Stallman as the visionary of free software, with the GPL as its sacred text, I take a different view. The skyrocking growth of processing power delivered software creation and distribution capability to millions of people around the world. With that as a foundation, it was inevitable that free software would emerge. In fact, it’s inevitable that software will become a no-cost commodity with pricing tied to accompanying services. Hats off to Stallman for the insight of creating a license that enforces sharing, but this nascent movement blossomed because the necessary technology infrastructure for its growth mushroomed due to Moore’s Law. Absent the astonishing growth of digital processing, open source would be an interesting footnote to a proprietary industry; with digital processing, open source is poised to transform the IT industry and bring its benefits to the entire planet.