Why Moore's Law is a mission statement

September 14, 20164 min read
Gordon Earle Moore

Summary. Is Moore’s Law a fundamental law of the universe? Or is it an unorthodox and ingenious example of a mission statement? This article answers the question.

From wild claim to accepted law

In 1965 Engineer Gordon Earle Moore wrote a paper that has long since passed into tech industry folklore. Because within its pages Moore made the seemingly wild claim that microprocessor transistor density would double every few years leading to an ongoing corresponding increase in microprocessor power.

You can forgive commentators who dismissed Moore’s claim as another example of bombast from an industry hardly known for its reserve. But skeptics were forced to reconsider after Moore co-founded Intel Corporation three years later and the power of his fledgling company’s microprocessors increased year after year in line with his prediction.

Miniaturization of circuits was at the heart of the increase in processor power. But the extent to how far the manufacturing process could miniaturize circuits appeared limited by the very nature of light itself. The problem was that the laser light used to etch circuit boards could only be focused to a point so small and no further before diffusing. Yet Intel was even able to overcome this seemingly intractable roadblock thanks to a revolution in photolithography that led to the use of ultraviolet light and exciplex Lasers.

By the eighties, the phenomenon that began as a wild claim was being called Moore’s Law. The inference being Gordon Moore, like Isaac Newton before him, had stumbled onto a characteristic of existence that held true throughout the universe. Today at Cern, Physicists are grappling with the building blocks of the universe in search of a theory of everything, a single equation providing a unified view of the universe from the cosmological to the quantum scale. 

Is it possible these same physicists are also diverting time to cobble a law concerning North American microprocessor production into an equation dealing with fundamental laws such as gravity, inertia, and electromagnetism? Unlikely.

The truth about Moore's Law

The Wikipedia entry for Moore’s Law grapples with this same question before conceding that Moore’s Law, “is an observation or projection and not a physical or natural law.” While it’s safe for the Wikipedia author to describe Moore’s Law as both observation and projection, this brings us no closer to the real nature of Moore’s so-called law. 

The key to getting to the truth of the matter is remembering that Intel was a mission-driven company. Now, if we see achieving Moore’s Law as Intel’s ongoing mission, one designed to realize the incredibly ambitious vision for that time of making personal computers for the general public an affordable reality - well then things start to make more sense.

As a mission statement, Moore’s Law astutely focuses on the essential challenge, which in this case was the challenge of squaring the contradictory requirements of making processors both faster and cheaper.

The mission statement’s focus is sufficiently upstream to ensure it encompassed all downstream yet equally important goals, such as addressing manufacturing challenges, reducing manufacturing costs, and attracting the right skills. Ultimately it was a mission statement designed to ensure Intel stayed ahead of the competition and won the race for cost-effective microprocessor power, which in turn perfectly aligned with the vision of being the company behind making computerization ubiquitous.

Any deconstruction of Moore’s Law as a mission statement must also acknowledge its highly engaging quality. It enthused both tech-savvy employees and consumers alike, inviting both groups to participate in a venture that was making history and changing the world.

Most successfully, Moore’s Law elegantly provided a clear focus for all stakeholders thanks to its ability to serve as a high-level objective, one that was as simple and understandable as it was unforgettable for every employee at Intel Corporation. This ensured it remained an ever-present consideration on everyone’s mind.

Ultimately, Moore’s Law as a mission statement helped to lay the foundation for such a high level of workforce alignment that commentators bought into the idea that Intel was riding the wave of a natural phenomenon. In doing so, they unwittingly turned Intel’s management and workforce alike into unsung heroes, given that in truth their success was the well-deserved fruit of their labor.

For the final clue that Moore’s Law is not a fundamental law of the universe but a highly unorthodox yet effective mission statement, remember that it was at Intel that the Objectives and Key Results goal-setting framework, also known as OKRs, was developed by Andy Grove, the man widely considered to be the driving force behind Intel’s early success.

As such, when we consider what the founders of Intel delivered to the business community, in addition to a new way of aligning people with the mission known as OKRs, we can also be grateful for an ingenious example of a mission statement for the same methodology.

Andy Grove Gordon Moore
(from left to right) Andy Grove, Robert Noyce, and Gordon Moore at Intel -1978