Is Silicon Cheaper Than Iron?

Byte Magazine LogoA colleague recently told me about a quote made by science fiction author Jerry Pournelle prior to 1990 that “Silicon is cheaper than iron.” This is something that Pournelle wrote as a columnist for Byte Magazine.

My friend explained that this, dubbed “Pournell’s Second Law,” was a very early argument that SSDs would eventually render HDDs obsolete.

I found a credible review of the statement in a web page  that excerpts articles in the September 1990 issue of Byte Magazine.  Byte celebrated its 15th anniversary in this issue by highlighting several important stories the magazine carried over the years.

Byte’s recounting of Pournell’s Second Law was explained by in these words:

“Silicon is cheaper than iron” pointed to the fact that it’s cheaper to upgrade a computer than replace it. “A large part of my original opposition to the Apple Macintosh was because the original Mac was an all-up [i.e., slotless] machine with a proprietary bus and operating system….”

The other aspect of Pournelle’s Second Law was that solid state memory would eventually displace the hard drive. By 1990, Pournelle recognized that hard drives had become so affordable compared to any form of solid state memory, that this was unlikely to happen.

It’s interesting to look at this in retrospect.  The SSD Guy published a post some time back about the first SSD, and I even had the pleasure of hiring someone in the 1990s from Intel who had moved from Western Digital to Intel during the late 1980s to help Intel replace HDDs with NOR flash once HDDs hit a brick wall and could no longer increase in capacity.  Clearly Pournelle was not alone in his thinking even in the 1970s and ’80s.

Readers probably already know that I do not anticipate any end to HDDs – they will be around for a very long time.  SSDs do pose a threat to DRAM, a fact that is explained in great detail in a report, How PC NAND Will Undermine DRAM, that can be purchased for immediate download from the Objective Analysis website.


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