Internet commentary

Microelectronics International

ISSN: 1356-5362

Article publication date: 1 April 2005




Ellis, B. (2005), "Internet commentary", Microelectronics International, Vol. 22 No. 1.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2005, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Internet commentary

A University should be a place of light, of liberty, and of learning[1]

Keywords: Internet, Microelectronics, Degrees

As I write this, Microsoft is releasing the second Service Pack for Windows XP. I must admit that this is mind-boggling. There are about 200 megabytes of rehashed files and most of the modifications are because of security issues when connected to the Internet. For those of us who have to suffer from narrow band connections, it is almost impossible to download the total Service Pack – it would take over a day with a 56 kilobits per second modem, assuming there was no hitch in the connection. For this reason, Windows XP Update allows it to be done in small sections as and when you on line. This is not entirely satisfactory, because the updating may be taking place behind the scenes while you're trying to use the Internet for other reasons that require all the performance that can be mustered.

When the release was first announced, Microsoft offered a free CD with the Service Pack. This offer was withdrawn within about two days; I suppose the demand was too great! As Microsoft no longer permit the distribution of their service packs or other free software through magazine disks, it would seem that the user no longer has any choice.

It is early days yet to be able to evaluate SP 2, but it would seem that it is not without difficulties, if the enormous increase in forum activity is anything to go by. In particular, there appears to be a considerable amount of incompatibility with third party security systems. I have seen that several users have decided to remove it from the system and to go back to SP1. This does not bode well for Microsoft's already tarnished reputation.

I don't think its worthwhile for me to take the risk of installing SP 2. In previous issues, I have described my security system and this appears to be quite robust. I know that crackers and hackers are perpetually trying to enter my system from the logs of the different security devices that I use. As far as I am aware, none have succeeded so I question whether it is worth the hassle that could possibly result from installing this Pack. This is probably another case of “if it ain't broke, don't fix it!”.

On a different tack, Microsoft and other software companies are justifiably concerned about pirated copies of their products. In the case of Windows XP, Microsoft probably thought that they had the problem solved with their activation system. Unfortunately, this fell down because the pirates got hold of corporate editions, which did not require activation. I receive possibly five or six invitations per day, by e-mail, to purchase these at a ridiculously low price, compared with the ridiculously high price of buying the genuine article. Some unscrupulous computer vendors supply these pirated copies with their hardware. It has recently come to my notice that Microsoft have made it very difficult for customers who have unwittingly purchased computers to subsequently install the genuine software. It is not possible to simply install it over the existing operating system. This must discourage users from changing from the pirated software, because there is no improvement in functionality in doing so.

I had a really horrible day recently. I normally had three desktop computers and a laptop networked together. On this day, the first thing that happened was that my laptop stopped operating. Do what I could, nothing would get it working reliably. After extensive diagnosis, it was found that the cache memory in the CPU had failed, probably as a result of a fault elsewhere. This machine was about 5 years old and the manufacturers had stopped supporting it. Because I have practically stopped travelling, I decided not to waste any time or money by replacing it. I was therefore reduced to three computers. Later the same day, I switched on a computer that was used for archiving files, which I did not wish to totally delete, and for various experimental work. Amongst the latter, I did a considerable number of experiments using Linux. Anyway, after switching it on and before I was able to see it booted up, I smelt the unmistakable odour of burning electronics. Switching it off and back to diagnostics, I found that a short circuit on the motherboard had caused the power supply unit to render its soul. As a general rule, under such circumstances I would merely change the faulty components but this unit was six years old and would therefore need a change of CPU and the memory. I costed this with my supplier and discovered that a cheap stock computer would cost less than replacing the components. Because I was not interested in high performance, I opted for this solution. Now, one of the important tasks that I did with the old computer was to compare the security of Internet working between Windows XP and Linux (not that there is much comparison!). I installed Windows XP on this and a number of applications without difficulty. I then started to install Linux, using the Fedora (Red Hat) distribution. This seemed to start off very well, until it got to detecting the graphics. After many tries and consulting various forums on the Internet, I had to give up simply because the Northbridge chipset on the motherboard was incompatible with Linux. I mention this to illustrate that many problems can be resolved by using the Internet. My usual procedure under such circumstances is to consult the FAQs on appropriate sites and then the knowledge bases that some manufacturers offer. If this fails, I then proceed to read existing posts on the forums and, finally, as a last measure, I post a “help” message on the best forum. It is very rare that I cannot find some kind of answer to a problem.

As a result of these problems, I decided to change computers around and use the new one just for Windows applications. In fact, I am dictating this Internet Commentary on it, using IBM ViaVoice 10 and I have nothing to complain about. I have not yet fully installed what needs to be done on my old office computer, including Linux, because I want to make sure there that I do not lose anything that may be useful from its 60 gigabytes of hard disk.

In case you're wondering, I reserve the third computer uniquely for video work. I am very heavily into this and do a lot of software beta testing for one of the biggest manufacturers in the field. This requires a very high performance computer. One job that I did recently was to translate Charles Jennings' (of Sandia National Laboratories, Albuquerque, New Mexico) famous 1976 16 mm film of dendrite growth on printed circuits to an electronic format. For those interested, I have put it on the Internet for downloading at:

Imagine you are 18 years old and have just finished your secondary education, or that you have a son or daughter in the same position. For the sake of this argument, I'll assume that we are talking about yourself and that money isn't an issue. You decide you want a career in Microelectronics. Where would you go to get the best education you can in your chosen subject? Today, I'm going to look at some of the educational institutes that offer courses in microelectronics.

For my first visit, I am going to cheat. This is not a university or Institute of Technology but a research centre specialising in microelectronics. The Interuniversity Microelectronics Centre or IMEC does offer courses at a postgraduate level, but there is nothing for the undergraduate. However, the site is really worth looking at. One thing that really did surprise me though is that an institute in Belgium should work in only English and Flemish (or Dutch) and not in French. This seems a pity as it must limit the potential audience, especially as some of the seminars are offered only in Dutch.

The Delft University of Technology houses the Delft Institute of Microelectronics and Submicrotechnology or DIMES. Unfortunately, this site has a lot in common with the previous one. It, too, does not appear to offer undergraduate courses but only postgraduate ones. However, the site is very interesting and complete.

The University of Texas at Austin, Microelectronics Research Center, is a similar institution but certainly on a smaller scale than the one at Delft. There is an interesting diversion on their web site called Educational Outreach, which shows members of the staff introducing some of the notions of microtechnology to young schoolchildren. An important point which comes out of their site is an interdisciplinary approach with close co-operation between the faculties of electrical and computer engineering, physics, chemistry and materials science and chemical engineering. This can only be to the good since, all too often, the problems we encounter are because we are not sufficiently polyvalent.

At last I have found a course for school leavers to study Microelectronics, at the University of Southampton. This is a four-year Master of Engineering and Electronic Engineering with Microelectronics course. In addition, the University has a microelectronics research group, offering various degrees of postgraduate research. I was rather puzzled though because the page listing the academic staff has cryptically hidden the names of six of the ten members – why? This is obviously a much smaller research centre, compared with some of the others.

The University of Illinois has a Micro and Nanotechnology Laboratory. It is available for use by anyone – I suppose at a price. But it has no formal courses for learning about the subjects covered, which, of course, includes microelectronics, not even at a postgraduate level, despite a full roster of professors on the faculty. Bizarre!

Have you ever heard of Sabanci University? No, neither had I! I's near Istanbul. Here is one place where there are full microelectronics courses for both undergraduates and graduates, up to PhD level. In fact, I am impressed at the amount of details on the web site as to what can be studied at the Microelectronics Group. However, the faculty is small in numbers and one has the impression that some of what is promised is wishful thinking around a rather basic core of equipment. Although there is information in both English and Turkish on the site, there is nothing to tell you in which languages the courses are held.

From Turkey to Sweden is a long step across Europe. However, the KTH Microelectronics and Information- technology organisation does offer undergraduate and graduate education in Microelectronics. There is only one small problem and that is it is all done in Swedish. Notwithstanding, the web site in English does give full details of the way the course is organised.

The School of Physics and Microelectronics of Shandong University in China is also offering both undergraduate and postgraduate studies in Microelectronics. Useful information is very hard to find on this web site. No mention is made of the language that the courses are held in, but it is very probable that you would be required to learn Chinese before being admitted.

The University of Dundee and the University of St Andrews, both in Scotland, offer a combined degree programme resulting in either a Bachelor of Engineering or a Master of Engineering in Microelectronics and Photonics. This appears to be one of the most comprehensive courses available for undergraduates. It should not be forgotten that the University of St Andrews is the most prestigious in Scotland, on a par with the best universities throughout the world. This page gives a detailed prospectus of the two courses. And, just to allay any fears, the courses will be in English!

It is not surprising that Singapore is able to offer training in Microelectronics for both undergraduates and graduates. The fourteen-year-old Microelectronics Centre is part of the School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering of Nanyang Technological University. It has an impressive academic staff as well as fully equipped laboratories. In addition, there is an splendid list of postgraduate research with a staff to student ratio of better than one to one. This would certainly be a useful place to shortlist. Semiconductor_Engineering.html

The National Technological University offers a Master of Science course in Microelectronics and Semiconductor Engineering. However, this course is a “distance learning” one. This may be all very well for learning the theory but I am at a loss to know how all the practical laboratory work can be done in this way. Maybe I am missing something, but what?

From here, I went to my own Alma Mater, the Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. I searched high and low through all the undergraduate courses available in electronics and associated disciplines. I found nothing, which rather surprised me as this college is considered as one of the best engineering schools in the United Kingdom. However, perseverance pays off! I found what I was looking for, but in the physics department! A five-year honours Master of Physics degree is offered in microelectronics, optics and electromagnetism. This looks quite an interesting possibility if one could survive the climate of Edinburgh.

Well, if you think Edinburgh's climate is bad, what about Nizhni Novgorod? The State University there has courses for undergraduates in the Faculty of Applied Physics and Microelectronics. Unfortunately, clicking on the link takes you to a page that looks very interesting, except for one small detail; it's in Russian! However, as you require the language of Chekhov to attend a course, this must surely not be a disadvantage to potential students!

No review of this nature would be complete without a mention of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Unfortunately, it almost requires a doctorate to understand the complexities of their various web sites, at least for a mere European. At the very least, I did find that some undergraduate courses could include optional subjects such as Microelectronics Processing Technology. I was not able to ascertain whether it was possible to obtain a degree in Microelectronics. No doubt, a more assiduous search would reveal more details but this is beyond the scope of my research for this article.

In conclusion, there is a wide choice of universities offering undergraduate courses in various types of Microelectronics Technology. However, it would appear that it is much easier to find postgraduate courses than undergraduate ones. I find this rather surprising for an applied engineering discipline. One thing seems certain and that is the availability of courses in many different countries, some of them even offering exchange facilities with universities elsewhere.


Note1. Benjamin Disraeli (1873) “A university should be a place of light, of liberty, and of learning”, speech, Hansard, 11 March, col. 1.

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