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Electronics Industry Predictions – Quicklogic

January 18th, 2021 by Industry Experts

25 Years ago, had I shared the prediction I am about to share now, I would have been laughed out of the conference room in any FPGA company. Not in a rude way, but with the sort of polite pat on the back you would give an intern who is just entering the real world from academia.

Schematic capture was the way ‘real engineers’ did FPGA design, inch thick data books outlined each and every detail of the logic and routing structures, and there was a sense of pride when someone completed a ‘boot camp’ on an FPGA vendor’s proprietary toolchain that often shipped on a stack of 3 1/2” floppy disks as long as a loaf of bread. We scanned newspaper ads for the latest Fry’s Electronics sales so that we could upgrade our desktop PC or Unix workstation with the fastest processor and largest amount of RAM available so that we could get our larger FPGA designs to place and route in less than a day.

Brian Faith, CEO, QuickLogic

Fast forward to today. We have come so far in many ways. For FPGA users, schematic design is a lost art, replaced long ago by languages such as Verilog and VHDL, and increasingly by languages like System C and Python. Data books are now merely electrons.

And yet in other ways we are still stuck in that time. Proprietary FPGA toolchains are the very definition of bloatware, still requiring very capable and expensive computers. Moreover, the deep experience an engineer has in using a proprietary toolchain appears to be a benefit, but that benefit is only an illusion – much like a mirrored room – one that appears to have endless capacity but is in fact very much constrained.

One analogy I like to use is web browsers. We all get annoyed when we get the message that a particular website is ‘optimized’ for a certain web browser. But what if several of the common websites you use all required their own, unique web browsers that had very different usability, each taking up tens of Gigabytes of storage on your computer. How frustrating and inefficient would that be? Well, that is exactly where we still are with proprietary FPGA toolchains.

Thankfully, in the past 25 years, there has also been a tremendous amount of energy invested by extremely bright, talented, and motivated engineers in the community to build something better. This ‘something better’ is a 100% open source FPGA toolchain. One that isn’t bloatware, one that can run on the gamut of computers – from servers, to desktops, to even a Raspberry Pi or an Android smartphone. When you start thinking of the democratization of technology, being able to create an FPGA design on your smartphone means almost everyone on the planet can be a designer. Imagine the possibilities!

The community has largely done this with zero contribution from FPGA vendors other than to give pats on the back and meaningless words of encouragement. It reminds me of a very appropriate quote attributed to Sun Tzu, “The King is only fond of words, and cannot translate them into deeds.”

Enter 2020. QuickLogic announced a collaboration with Google and Antmicro to openly embrace and contribute all of the necessary information to ensure 100% open source FPGA toolchain support for QuickLogic technology. A huge step in enabling more FPGA users? Yep. And yet do I still feel that polite pat on the back from folks in the FPGA space who think this is just for hobbyists? You betcha.

That leads to my three predictions for 2021.

  1. We will see actual end customer product shipping with FPGA designs done using a 100% open source toolchain. Not because they are forced to – because they want to.
  2. The Quality of Results of most designs compiled through open source tools will be at least on par with those compiled through proprietary tools.
  3. Thousands of techno-curious people will start using FPGA technology for the first time because the smartphone in their pocket or the Raspberry Pi that is in their classroom will give them a glimpse into the capabilities of a much more modern version of the technology that I first used 25 years ago.

These three dynamics will bring about their own democratic revolution within the tech industry and beyond, and once that happens there will be no going back.


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