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In Between the 0s & 1s

It's great to see Planet Analog getting a facelift, and I'm glad I can play a small part in it. As a 30+ year veteran of the analog business, it's nice to see that analog design is thriving and prospering in this ever-more-digital world. Along the way, perhaps I can offer some hints and tips you'll find useful on analog design and the application of analog circuits.

Some years back, I was standing in the Analog Devices booth at some tradeshow when I saw a college student with a quizzical look on his face. I asked if I could be of assistance. The conversation went something like this.

“I'm an EE major and will be graduating next year. I'm at this show trying to figure out what kind of work I want to do when I get out. Can you tell me what analog is? I'm not really familiar with it.”

“What kind of EE have you been studying?,” I asked. “Power? RF? Radar? Software? Digital?”

“Digital. That's what I do.”

“OK, so you deal with zeros and ones, right?”

His eyes brightened as I tuned into resonance. “Yeah. Gates, flipflops, and registers. Zeros and ones everywhere.”

“Did you ever look at the signals on a scope to see what voltages they were?”

“Yeah, a while back. A zero is like zero volts, and a one is like five volts, right?” (This was in the days of TTL logic.)

“Right. All that stuff in between the zeros and ones is analog. And all the stuff below zero and above one.”

At this point, he slowly walked away dazed and confused. I had changed his view of electronics in less than a minute.

Digital design is challenging, especially with clock rates soaring and power budgets shrinking. Perhaps we can discuss the complexities of modern software design another time. My view is that it's hard and getting harder. If it were easy, my PC wouldn't be getting security updates all the time.

High-efficiency power conversion in small form factors, sensor signal conditioning, analog audio and video processing of all kinds, and of course the ultimate analog signal challenge (RF) are all critical to making modern electronic systems work. The trend toward faster, more accurate, lower-power, and cheaper devices is inescapable. If you don't believe it, try selling something that is slower, is less accurate, uses more power, and is more expensive than whatever exists today.

Barrie Gilbert once said that digital data can be represented in lots of ways. Pneumatic, hydraulic, and various mechanical means can be used (and have been) to represent zeros and ones. Transistors and ICs are just conveniently small ways of doing it electronically, using technology originally developed for analog applications. Remember that the first commercially significant use of transistors was in hearing aids. And the first integrated circuit demonstrated by Jack Kilby was a sine-wave oscillator. Just as in the beginning, analog design is a key part of today's electronics.

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