Foresight Update 12

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

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Software Component Markets: Why Not?

Society is increasingly dependent on the quality, reliability, and security of the software governing the systems and products we use, from telephones system and military systems to our automobiles and even washing machines. In Update 11 Norm Hardy examined the prospects for better security against viruses and other outside attacks through the use of secure operating systems. One can also ask the more general question of how software can be made better in quality and reliability.

In the case of most products, improvements are made gradually: copies of the same item are used by many customers, who make their views known by refusing to buy again, complaining, or even returning the product in disgust. This process works for consumer software which is sold in many copies. But much software of importance is produced and used within a company or organization: how could the producers of such software take advantage of the process of gradual improvement based on customer reaction?

If software could be written in functional chunks, and fit together in a modular fashion to perform different tasks, these chunks could be bought and sold. While modularity is increasing, we don't yet see a vigorous software components market. The question of why not is being pursued by the the Agorics Project team at George Mason University's Center for the Study of Market Processes. Here are some excerpts from their proposal to study the problem:

"A vigorous software components industry would mean enormous benefits to both producers and consumers of software--on this point actors in the software industry broadly agree. Widespread reuse of software components would mean greater productivity, more rapid innovation and improvements in quality, lower cost, more timely product development and delivery, and greater ability to cope with complexity.

"But such an industry is frustratingly slow in developing. Far from using standard, well-established building blocks in assembling their software systems, today's software engineers spend a tremendous amount of time and creativity reinventing and rebuilding what has been built before--often many times over.

"To be sure, there has been progress: The development of object-oriented technologies especially appears to be a crucial step in enabling the development of a software component industry. In addition there are improvements in network connectivity and database technologies which should allow for effective communication in component markets.

"But extensive production and marketing of reusable software components have not developed. Why not? What further changes need to take place to catalyze the development of a vigorous software component industry? The purpose of the study proposed here is to find out answers to these questions.

"The study will pay special attention to the interrelationships between technological developments, on the one hand, and economic, legal, and institutional factors on the other. While we are very interested in and closely follow the technological developments, as economists we expect to make few specifically technological suggestions in this study. Rather we will focus on background, analysis, and projections of the non-technological issues which will shape the success of technological developments.

"This overview should be a valuable resource to all who would participate in the development of the software components industry. Those approaching it from the technological standpoint will gain insight into the economic and cultural factors that constrain the success chances of new technologies, and those approaching it from the business standpoint will gain insight into the technical possibilities it might be profitable to support."

The project leader is Prof. Don Lavoie, ably assisted by advanced graduate students Howard Baetjer, Bill Tulloh, and Kevin Lacobie, all of whom are conversant with both economics and programming. Funders wishing to participate in the project can contact CSMP at 703-993-1142; fax 703-993-1133.

Foresight Update 12 - Table of Contents



Special thanks go to Chris Rodgers for two years of highly competent Foresight work; she leaves us now to continue a career in the theatre.

Special thanks are due to Fred Stitt, who served as publisher of Foresight Update for its first four years. His assistance during these early years has been greatly appreciated.

Thanks also to:

Thanks to the following for sending technical articles and media coverage: Joe Bonaventura, Jim Conyngham, Doug Denholm, Robert Edberg, S.F. Elton, Jerry Fass, D.J. Fears, Joseph Fine, Dave Forrest, W.C. Gaines, A.P. Hald, William Hale, G. Houston, Stan Hutchings, Christopher Jones, Marie-Louise Kagan, Cherie Kushner, Henry Lahore, Tom McKendree, Bob Newbell, John Papiewski, John Primiani, E.A. Reitman, Naomi Reynolds, Jeffrey Soreff, Alvin Steinberg, Ralph Tookey, and Jack Veach.

Foresight Update 12 - Table of Contents


Foresight Requests

From our "Thanks" column it's clear that many readers are already sending in articles, both technical and nontechnical. We'd like to make this more systematic for the technical articles, with volunteers agreeing to monitor specific journals. If you routinely look at one or more of the following and are willing to send us copies of relevant articles, please contact us: Angewandt Chemie, JACS, J. Appl. Phys., Appl. Phys Lett., Protein Engineering, J. Computational Chemistry, J. Molecular Electronics. As always, articles from other publications are welcome. We already monitor Science, Nature, and Science News. We'd also appreciate help from Japan in identifying relevant journals and obtaining abstracts in English of key articles.

Someone with routine access to NEXIS could help us by running periodic searches on the word nanotechnology.

Layout help is needed on the Macintosh, using PageMaker software.

We are in need of the following materials and help: a fax machine and a laser printer for the Macintosh. Office space in the Palo Alto area is needed as well. Volunteers with legal or fundraising experience are needed. Note that donations of equipment or funds are tax-deductible in the U.S. as charitable contributions.

If you or your company can help with any of the above, please call us at 415-324-2490.

Foresight Update 12 - Table of Contents


Nanoelectronics: Early Results
from the Top-Down Approach

Book Review by Tihamer Toth-Fejel

Nanostructure Physics and Fabrication: Proceedings of the International Conference, ed. Mark A. Reed and Wiley P. Kirk, Academic Press, 1989, $64.50.

For decades the goal in electronics has been to make devices smaller, with the benefits of greater speed and lower cost. This progression--smaller, faster, cheaper--can be plotted on a graph to give a smooth curve: so smooth that it's tempting to assume that the process will simply continue as it has until the ultimate limits are reached.

The techniques now used in micron-and submicron-scale electronics have been described by Drexler as the top-down approach to miniaturization: bits and pieces of a larger structure are removed until the desired structure remains--like sculpting. Despite the stunning (and continuing) successes of this approach, it breaks down when molecular precision is desired. Because the starting material doesn't have each atom in a desired location, the final product doesn't either.

To get an object with each atom where we want it, the object has to be constructed that way from scratch: this is called the bottom-up approach, described in Drexler's book Engines of Creation. In a new technical book, due out in spring1992, he explains how positional chemistry will lead to a broad ability to perform molecular manufacturing. Products would of course include electronics.

Given this theoretical advantage, why are so many (including the editors of Nanostructure Physics) still pursuing the top-down path? Simply put, the top-down approach has not yet reached its limits, and improved devices can be made much faster this way than by figuring out how to implement the bottom-up approach.

While STMs can write the world's smallest advertisement--the IBM logo using 35 xenon atoms--no useful structures have yet been built. Further, before commercially-viable quantities of electronics can be built with molecular precision, we will need a highly-parallel system, using molecular machines for molecular manufacturing.

Top-down researchers are intrigued nonetheless. Yale's Mark Reed feels that in order for nanostructures to succeed commercially, they must be built bottom-up, because the error rate from the top-down approach is too expensive. Wiley Kirk of Texas A&M believes that studying simple structures (which are all we can build using the top-down approach) is more rewarding at this point, because their lower complexity makes it possible to understand the fundamental processes at work. He also believes that the two points of view--top-down and bottom-up--will merge in ten to twenty years.

Fortunately, devices constructed with existing top-down techniques can give scientific data that are relevant for all molecular-scale electronics, regardless of how they're made; that's why Nanostructure Physics and Fabrication is of interest even to those looking at the long term. It is, however, a difficult book: If you are not in the field, even if you've studied quantum mechanics and graduate-level solid state physics, you will probably find most of it too technical.

For those wishing a quick introduction to some of the concepts involved, I highly recommend R. Reed's article in Byte (May 1989) on "The Quantum Transistor" and Mark A. Clarkson's "The Quest for the Molecular Computer" in the same issue. Clarkson's article is especially relevent; it references Engines and leans toward the narrow definition of nanotechnology. Another good introduction is Claude Weisbuch's chapter in Semiconductors and Semimetals, Volume 24, edited by Raymond Dingle. Academic Press will soon release an expanded version of this chapter as a textbook (title unknown at this time).

The serious reader can dig into Nanostructure Physics and Fabrication. Most of the book consists of papers delivered at a symposium held at College Station, Texas, from March 13-15, 1989. It is a scientific study of nanostructures, mostly with respect to nanoelectronics, with many papers full of quantum-mechanical equations. Realizing the difficulty of their subject, the editors did not simply collect the papers from the symposium. The book starts with an overview and background, continuing with three introductory papers to introduce readers to the topic. Because of the electrical engineering emphasis, the most interesting consequence of this important work is that it shows how quantum-electronic nanodevices can work faster than those implemented in rod logic.

Though quantum mechanics has been around since 1923, it is only recently that electrons have been observed demonstrating nonclassical transport behavior in electronic components. This behavior was only observable in limited, low-temperature and complex many-bodied systems, but now nanostructures make it possible to observe "large scale" quantum effects. For example:

  1. Large quantum tunneling effects can be observed in resonant tunneling structures, showing that artificially-induced quantum states could show nonclassical electron transport.
  2. The fabrication of semiconductor quantum wires, so that quantum transport becomes dominant, makes the wave nature of the electron very apparent, leading to electron waveguides similar to their microwave counterparts (though six orders of magnitude smaller).
  3. When the number of carriers becomes countably small, the quantized conductance of ballistic point contacts opens up an entire area of quantum interference-effect devices.

The rest of the book contains numerous technical papers on lateral periodicity and confinement, quantum devices and transistors, equilibrium and nonequilibrium response in nanoelectronic structures, quantum wires and ballistic point contacts, and related structures and phenomena.

A symposium on similar topics, "Nanostructures and Mesoscopic Systems," was held in Santa Fe on May 20-24, 1991. Leading researchers from MIT, Yale, U.C. Santa Barbara, IBM Watson, Bell Labs, and Texas Instruments presented their results.

Tihamer Toth-Fejel is a Research Engineer at the Industrial Technology Institute (Ann Arbor, Michigan) and did his master's thesis on self-replicating automata. He can be reached at 313-769-4248 or

Foresight Update 12 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4 | Page5

From Foresight Update 12, originally published 1 August 1991.

Foresight thanks Dave Kilbridge for converting Update 12 to html for this web page.