Internet commentary

Microelectronics International

ISSN: 1356-5362

Article publication date: 1 April 2002




Ellis, B. (2002), "Internet commentary", Microelectronics International, Vol. 19 No. 1.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2002, MCB UP Limited

Internet commentary

  • The time has come... to talk of many things: [1]

Keywords: Internet, Lead free soldering, Hybrid circuit, Thick film

I have been travelling quite a lot recently in four continents. For my prologue, I should like to mention one or two things that have come to mind.

One of the perpetual problems when travelling, particularly over more than a day or two, is being able to access one's e-mails and the Internet generally. Internet cafes do present one eventuality but they are usually inconvenient and with considerable security risks. Another possibility, assuming one has one's own laptop computer, is to subscribe to one of the universal service providers with dial-up facilities in all countries, such as CompuServe or AOL. Unfortunately, these do not provide the grade of service required for professional use. I recently found a third solution, which is quite attractive. I was in Montreal at the time, staying in a hotel with a modem socket in my room, as is becoming increasingly common. I looked up Internet Service Providers in the Yellow Pages for Montreal and found about a dozen offering dial-up access. Two phone calls later, on a Sunday believe it or not, I had taken out a one month subscription with Look Communication for the princely sum of CAD11.45 (about USD 8), taxes included. As the dial-up number was a freebie and the hotel did not charge for such calls, this was all I paid for a whole week of Internet access. One cannot complain about this.

On my flights into and out of Canada, I was able to plug my laptop into the aircraft's power supply, overcoming the discharged battery problem. This required an adaptor, supplied free of charge for use during the flight by Swissair. This was not only a fantastic help in allowing me to do some real work, it meant that I arrived at my destination with a fully charged battery and was able to go straight into a meeting without fear that my computer would fall flat on its face. It is a pity that more airlines do not offer this service, nor even Swissair on all its flights.

The next stage would be to have full broadband Internet access while sitting in an aircraft seat. Some airlines have announced that they intend to provide Internet access but it is my understanding that it will not be broadband and that it will be very costly, possibly around $10 per minute. Quite frankly, I cannot see this taking off as well as the aircraft itself. I can understand the technical problems that providing such a service would entail and what little bandwidth was available, via a satellite, would soon be diminished if three or four passengers in a 747 were to require access at the same time. I have a gut feeling that the Chief Financial Officer of most companies will put a stop to this kind of exercise when he sees the company credit card statements.

What do you do in an aircraft, especially on a long-haul flight, after the flight attendant has removed your dinner tray? You don't have much choice: watch a putrid film with even more atrocious sound; read; sleep or possibly do some work on a computer for as long as the batteries hold up (assuming that your flight does not offer a power connection). I have found reading a book, especially one requiring some concentration, is not always ideal but that magazines are much easier. I don't subscribe to any computer magazines but I quite frequently buy one or two in airports. I should say that the choice of reading matter available varies enormously from airport to airport, even within the same country (for example, Geneva is better than Zurich in Switzerland). I have also found that the news stands after going through security and customs are usually more poorly supplied than those outside or in the local high street. (Incidentally, the duty-free shops are also often more expensive than the High Street ones: I recently bought a digital still camera in the UK and saw the identical model in the duty-free shop at Heathrow airport at about £150, tax-free, more than I paid with value-added tax, which I afterwards recuperated!). Anyway, to return to the reading matter question, I find that many of the better computer magazines do provide a little bit of food for thought and I propose to offer you a few snippets of information that I have culled over the past two or three months.

Over the years, I have mentioned in this column, and those of the two sister-magazines for which I also write similar columns, my views on mobile telephony and the Internet. I think I was one of the first to forecast that WAP could not possibly be a commercial success. This was when everybody was going mad over the idea of being able to obtain information while on the move. Time has proved me right. I have also mentioned that I cannot see how third generation (3G) handsets are going to be any better and they are doomed from lack of practicality but also because connection charges will be out of this world, to allow the telecommunications companies to amortise their gigantic investments to obtain a licence to operate. If one considers how much it already costs to use a mobile telephone outside your own country, just for a speech connection, we are probably looking at tens of dollars per minute of connection time in foreign countries. Judging from several editorials that have appeared in the computer press recently, this view is slowly taking over in the computer world. For 3G to take off, I believe that it would require a wireless palm computer to provide the interface with you and that the connection cost would have to be as low as a few cents per minute, anywhere in the world, for it to become really attractive. Then, yes, it could be a technical success, but hardly a commercial one unless the volume of business multiplied a hundred-fold over current mobile telephony. Is this a pipe dream? Maybe investors are thinking likewise, looking at the way the share prices for Deutsche Telekom, Nokia and many other companies heavily involved in 3G have plummeted over the past months.

Another thing which I have noticed, perusing the magazines, is the evolution of prices in the IT world, especially in the USA. Companies like Dell, which has now ousted Compaq from the number one position of PC supplier, offering really useful machines for well under $1,000. In fact, there are some which are barely over half this price. The manufacturing profit margins must be horrifically low and one wonders how long such a price war can keep up. Yes, I have read that Intel and AMD are reducing their processor prices and that memory is already down to about $30 per hundred megabytes. In my opinion, there is a downside to this state of affairs. Certainly, these cheap computers will perform like greased lightning for ordinary applications, but will they do as well for those which require a high degree of resources such as for complex graphics, computer-aided design and video work? The answer is generally no, because these cheap computers also have cheap chip sets (managing the PCI, AGP and disc busses) which are not able to cope adequately with high resource applications. There is therefore added need to be very cautious when buying modern computers for hi-tech applications, because some of these cheaper chip sets have appeared also in computers costing two or three thousand dollars.

I have also noticed that flat screen LED monitors have also come down in price. The bottom price in the USA is currently between $400 and $500 for a 15 inch model with a viewing area almost as large as that of a 17inch cathode ray tube monitor. I personally find that these flat screen monitors are ideal for reading e-mails and browsing the Internet, because the clarity of the image is better. If the prices come down just a little bit more, then I forecast that they will become the norm for most applications. Notwithstanding, there is a possibility, according to one of the magazines, that the prices may rise again this autumn so it may be unrealistic to hope for such a drop over the next few months. There are also much bigger screens becoming available, up to 24inch and 26inch diagonal - at a price! Assuming that the resolution is the same, these would be fantastic to work with for computer-aided design and similar applications, provided somebody else paid for them! While on the subject of LED monitors, it should be mentioned that most of them have minor faults, up to five non-contiguous pixels not working properly. This is not catastrophic, albeit a nuisance. There is nothing one can do about it as the manufacturers' specifications generally state a maximum number of inoperative pixels. I have one screen which has two such faults and, even for CAD work, they are nothing more than very slightly distracting under some circumstances and invisible in the majority of applications.

The one point that is common to all the mags is that Microsoft's validation scheme for the Windows XP operating system and all future MS software is stated as obnoxious, to say the least. Never heard of it? You will. What does it mean? When you install the software and before you can use it, it examines your hardware and derives a number from what you have installed. You have to send MS this number, along with the serial number, before MS will send you a code allowing the software to start working. All this can be done automatically over the Internet or manually by telephone. If you install it on the same machine much than twice again, then you have to re-apply for validation. If you change some hardware in your machine, you have to re-apply for validation. If you change machines, you have to explain to Microsoft why you are applying for a new validation. (N.B., the actual details are still unpublished, but these general lines are correct.) OK, it is a protection against piracy, but it is Big Brother Gates watching over you and what is to stop him and his Little Brother acolytes from totally invading your machine with this information he can garner? Is it not an invasion of privacy? I have no intention whatsoever of purchasing any licence to use a Microsoft software which requires such validation - not ever! I invite you, dear readers, to take notice of this wretched contempt of common decency and do likewise until he drops the misguided idea. There are alternatives. Incidentally, there is a potential hiccup in the whole idea: how can such information pass a corporate firewall? If it can, the firewall is lacking. If it can't, you have wasted your money (unless you use phone validation).

The magazines have lately gone mad on the 20th anniversary of the PC. I actually dispute this date, unless one assumes that the personal computer or PC is proprietary to IBM, using the Intel 8088 and £86 chips and DOS operating systems. In fact, I was using a personal computer, even if it was not known by that name, many years earlier than 1981. In detail, I started manufacture of the first computerised ionic contamination tester, using a Hewlett-Packard HP-85 personal computer, as early as 1979. However, be that as it may, the magazines have gone to town over the errors of the past 20 years and their forecast for the next 20 years. Many of the former are funny. Many of the latter are even funnier! For example, one magazine forecast that body heat, equivalent to 60 watts, will be used as an energy source. I can just imagine going around with a light bulb on my head and freezing to death because it is extracting too much heat from my body: maybe my food intake would have to be doubled when the light starts to dim! I guess it would be much more efficient to have everybody working a treadmill.

One of the thorny problems, which is confronting us at the moment, is the use of lead- free solder. I don't believe that this is so severe for those mounting components on hybrid circuits, as opposed to printed circuits, simply because the ceramic substrate used for thick films is chemically and thermally more robust than organic substrates. I did a Google search using “lead free” “hybrid circuit” “thick film”,as my keywords, and found that exactly 12 responses came up, after duplicate references were eliminated. Two of these were for the same site, but different pages. Before starting, I should like to explain my personal opinion. This move towards lead-free soldering is a political pretext, promoted by vested interests, under the camouflage of environmentalism. There is no scientific proof that lead in solder, used for electronics applications, has ever caused harm to either the environment or persons coming in contact with it. The current hue and cry has been promoted by the European Union's WEEE directive, which was founded without the slightest risk assessment. It will almost inevitably enter into force, so we are presented with a fait accompli that will probably cause much more environmental (and economic) harm than good. On the other hand, I support the main lines of the directive's proposals for recycling, especially solder. The paradox is that, if the solder is recycled, there will be no lead left to cause environmental harm, so why ban it?

This page must be considered somewhat out of date because it advertises a symposium “to be held” in May, 2000, organised by the New England chapter of IMAPS. Two of the proposed papers touch upon the lead-free solder situation and I quote verbatim the titles, authors and micro-abstract. The first is, “The Status of Lead-Free Solder Alloys”, by Karl Seelig and David Suraski; AIM, Inc. We will examine the current status of lead-elimination in North America, Europe, and Japan and the true driving forces behind lead-free issue. We will discuss the desirable attributes of lead-free alloys and viability of candidate constituents, including specific properties of tin, silver, copper, antimony, cadmium, bismuth, indium and zinc. The other one is entitled, “Lead Free Solder Attachment” by Tim Skidmore; Multicore Solders and Karen Walters; BTU International. Multicore Solders, Inc. and BTU International have collaborated to investigate the reflow characteristics and oven performance of a lead free solder alloy and various flux systems. Reflow variables are combined in a designed experiment and presented with optimized reflow profile and furnace specification that minimize solder defects while avoiding damage to the temperature-sensitive components.

This page is probably without interest for most of us as it is the curriculum vitae of a Chinese engineer expecting to graduate this year. He has studied a wide variety of subjects and his only claim to appear here is that he has examined the wetting force of three alloys as a function of flux type and surface finish.

Although less so, this is another out-of-date symposium with the programme in PDF format, covering six pages. This symposium is organised by IMAPS Keystone Chapter. It was held in Pennsylvania, a few months ago. Our interest in lead-free solders and soldering consists of a full day seminar on the theory and practice of using these materials.

This page, or rather the part of it dealing with lead- free soldering, is more commercial than technical. The implication is that lead-free soldering can be done only under nitrogen, supplied by Air Liquide, of course. Whereas there may well be benefits of controlled atmosphere soldering and reflow, this is not a page which you are likely to Bookmark for constant referral.

I have slightly modified the URL given by Google, as there was an error. This is the programme of the forthcoming conference organised by the Nordic chapter of a gene maps IMAPS. I say “forthcoming” but it will be well and truly gone by the time that this appears in print. Two papers in the preliminary programme offer information on lead free soldering. What is great about this page is the fact that a hyperlink will take you to a very detailed abstract of the papers. Unfortunately, although the download was fast, the handshake before downloading started seemed to take ages on three or four tries.

Should I or should I not include this URL? Strictly speaking, I probably would not, except that the subject makes very interesting reading, even if it has nothing whatsoever to do with lead-free soldering. Google appears to have boobooed in this respect! The actual subject matter of the page is the production of metallic nanoparticles, which can apparently be used in microelectronics, although it is not very clear why.

This is a list of technical papers authored by DuPont. It is specifically devoted to microelectronics applications. The reason that it came up with Google is that the term “lead free” applies here to ceramic materials, namely low temperature pastes, and not solder. Each title is linked to a short abstract of the paper, which can be ordered on request. This is such a useful source of technical information on the company's commercial products that I have included it here, even though I could find nothing relevant to lead-free soldering.

Clicking the reference in Google, I obtained a dead end. However, a small modification to the URL produces a page referring to yet one other conference that will be over within a few weeks. This HDI conference has one paper devoted to lead-free technology in its programme. This could be quite an interesting presentation because it relates the techniques to flip-chip technology. Bumping the flip-chips with a higher melting point alloy must present some problems and it would be interesting to find out how these have been overcome. There is also the question of reflowing the bumps during assembly.

These two IMAPS pages, which came up together in Google, each have one reference to lead-free soldering. The first one is a calendar of IMAPS events in Europe. It contains details of a workshop, in Italy, “to be held around Easter 2001” of which one day will be devoted to soldering and assembly matters with, apparently, some emphasis on lead- free. The second page is a list of books that IMAPS has for sale. Only one of these books has a specific mention of lead-free soldering in the catalogue and that is Klein Wassink's and Verguld's “Manufacturing Techniques for Surface Mounted Assemblies”.

This is a large PDF document (118 pages), co- published by the Electronic Industries Alliance, the IPC and the Surface Mount Technology Association in 1999 describing the status of surface mount technology. There are relatively few references to lead-free soldering, the longest being half a page summarising the situation. There is no in-depth discussion of the subject.

This web page appears to be from the database of a company registering securities information, presumably for legal purposes. The page in question refers to a company called Parlex Corp which has developed a conductive adhesive for attaching components to hybrid circuits. Beyond that, there are no technical details, as may be expected from this type of report.

From the above, it would seem that the amount of technical information available on the Internet on this very specific subject is limited. It may be that other keywords could result in a different selection but it is clear that the subject is not widely discussed. One thing that the search has produced is an indication that conference and similar organisers do not prepare their sites well in advance. Whereas it is useful to have some information on papers which have been presented in the past, these are not generally available for downloading on the Internet. It would probably help organisers, where possible, to publish the full proceedings once the event is over. This would be a great service for those who were unable to attend, even if it is necessary to pay a modest sum for downloading individual papers. At the same time, it would give surfers an idea of the quality level of the conference for future editions, and therefore attract new business. Above all, knowing that search engines are very slow to “spider” changes on websites, announcements of the broad lines of future conferences and similar events should be published on the Internet at least 12, if not 18, months in advance, up-dating the information at least monthly as the real programme becomes clear. I suggest that, if nothing is being added after a conference is over, the pages describing the programme be deleted because they can serve no further useful purpose. Another point that comes to mind is the fact that none of the solder manufacturers, nor the specific “lead free” organisations, have come up on the list. Is this because they have ignored thick film technology in favour of printed circuit assembly? Certainly, I recently did a similar survey for our sister journal, Soldering and Surface Mount Technology, and many of these bodies did come up on the search engine when the substrate was not defined.



  1. 1.

    'The time has come', the Walrus said,'To talk of many things:Of shoes and ships and sealing waxOf cabbages and kingsAnd why the sea is boiling hotAnd whether pigs have wings.'Lewis Carrol, (Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) Through the Looking Glass (1872) ch. 4

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