Flexibility or performance? That choice is a constant trade-off for microprocessor designers. General-purpose processors in personal computers execute a broad set of software commands that can cope with any task from graphics to complex calculations. But their flexibility comes at the expense of speed. In contrast, application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs), optimized for a given task, such as the computing required in graphics or sound cards, are very fast but lack adaptability.

Some processors fit a niche between these two types of hardware. Called morphware, they can be reconfigured and optimized for any task. One example--the commercially available field-programmable gate array (FPGA)--consists of large blocks of transistors that perform logic operations and that can be "rewired" by the software. Customization enables FPGAs to accelerate data encryption, automatic military target recognition or data compression by a factor of 10 to 100--enabling, for instance, dramatically enhanced security or faster target acquisition times as compared with a general-purpose CPU (central processing unit).