This book by Chris Miller is not about French Fries, but about computer chips (integrated circuits). It is a fascinating history of their development and how it relates to current affairs. We are just beginning to realise how critical they are in the war in Ukraine – as if we didn’t realise it when there was a chip shortage after COVID struck. They have become critical and strategic and particularly because Taiwan produces almost all of the world’s advanced micro-chips.
1980s US ban on IT products
I had a natural interest in this book because I was in the software business, but I had also got my hands dirty with learning to program microprocessors and also to solder items on circuit boards. I even built my own PC at one stage. In the 1980s I had come up against the US ban on exports of computer products to certain countries. I was rather surprised that, although I knew that US technology was available in these countries, British products were banned – which I thought was rather unfair.
Chips and chains
The book is extremely useful in describing different types of computer chips, how they were invented and what they do. The vignettes about the inventors are a nice touch. It also tells us where they are made and the pinch-points in global supply chains. These supply chains involve various types of microchips being made in one country and shipped to a third country where they are made into finished products – eg mobile phones, computers, audio-visual products or cars.
The countries that are mainly involved in this trade are USA, Taiwan, China, S. Korea, Japan, UK, Netherlands and Germany. The UK company involved is ARM as a designer of important processors within mobile phones, but, like Apple, it doesn’t build them. ASML in the Netherlands is as critical as TSML in Taiwan, because it supplies the machines to make integrated circuits. Without these machines, no advanced chips can be made.
South Korea and Japan build most of the world’s memory chips and China puts the products together (eg. Apple phones). The USA does still produce microprocessors from companies like Intel and AMD. Two other companies in the USA are of growing importance – Qualcomm and Nvidia(which produces chips used mainly for picture and photo-processing, but they are increasingly now used for developing Artificial Intelligence).
It is important that the general public does understand what goes on under the bonnet of many devices that use computer chips. Wars will be fought that depend on these and we are likely to hear a lot more about world supply chains, gluts and shortages.
‘Chip War’ by Chris Miller
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Ltd
Number of pages: 464
Dimensions: 234 x 153 x 33 mm