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  1. Technology
May 24, 1994


By CBR Staff Writer

The embedded processor market is not, let’s face it, a particular sexy one. Compared with the processors that power the latest high-performance personal computer, those lurking in your TV, car or washing machine are low profile things that do not lend themselves to Mandlebrot-rendering demonstrations. However in terms of sheer volumes shipped, the market for embedded processors dwarfs that of so-called mainstream processors. Even if it faded from the desktop, there are those who argue that PowerPC could be counted a success if it managed to capture a significant slice of this very large pie. Moreover the market is changing rapidly. Today, embedded shipments are dominated by lowly, four-bit devices with precious little processing power, but most research figures show that it is the 16-bit and 32-bit area that is growing fastest, and this is the wave that Motorola Inc and IBM Corp hope to catch. Put simply, an embedded microprocessor is skewed towards a specialism, whereas a general purpose microprocessor has to be, well, general purpose. Embedded processors have to be very easily and cheaply manufactured, but they don’t generally have to be particularly powerful. They may, however have to integrate all kinds of weird and wonderful support circuitry onto the chip itself in order to keep the price of the aforementioned car/TV/washing machine acceptably low. Motorola conservatively estimates that the typical home has 25 to 40 microcontrollers, the normal car between five and 20, and your office between one and five.

Bare essentials

So the average embedded processor consists of a simplified CPU core with some in-built RAM, and maybe ROM, perhaps a specialised circuit or two, and the ability to interface to a variety of external peripherals. Old CPUs do not die, the saying goes they get embedded (ask the Z80). What IBM and Motorola have done with their new embedded offerings is take the PowerPC core, strip it to the bare essentials and then add lots of nice input-output support. Though the new products are weedy by other PowerPC standards, they kick sand in the face of most other embedded controllers. For a start they are 32-bit devices: and the number of 32-bit devices out there today is minuscule. Indeed the sector is still dominated by 4-bit processors, though there are a fair number of 16-bit and 8-bit parts about. The applications that the companies are targeting – set-top boxes and the like – extend the reach of the traditional embedded processor into the realm of the straight microprocessor. The distinction between a standard CPU and an embedded controller is becoming increasingly blurred. To give some idea of market size, Dataquest says 28m 16-bit and 32-bit microcontrollers will be sold in Europe alone this year and the 4-bit market is roughly 10 times that size. By comparison, around 15m conventional 32-bit microprocessors will ship. Dataquest doesn’t even bother to separate 16-bit and 32-bit microprocessor sales, since the 32-bit segment is so small. As we’ve said, though, the embedded CPUs are cheap – in total those 28m chips are expected to fetch only $117m, where the 15m CPUs will bring in $2,300m! Though both markets are growing year-on-year at around 35%, overall, the high-end embedded controller market is storming along at 45% growth, as the software that controllers are expected to run becomes more complex. IBM and Motorola’s positions in the embedded market couldn’t be more different. IBM is the new kid on the block. True, it has been making embedded processors and microcontrollers for many years, but they have all been for internal consumption. Its Token Ring boards and communications controllers are stuffed with the things, but IBM did not turn to the merchant market until around 18 months ago, with the formation of IBM Microelectronics.

By Chris Rose

It is not known for its high chip profile, and IBM’s launch of the PPC 403GA controller marks perhaps its most aggressive push into the market to date. Motorola, by contrast, is an old hand at the game. Historically, strength lies in the automotive

market, but you’ll find Motorola chips lurking in anything from mobile phones through to the telephone exchange. It is active in the 8-, 16- and 32-bit markets, but ignores the massive, though low-margin, 4-bit controller market. The size of the business is indicated by the fact that Motorola can sell you any one of 250 different 8-bit controllers. Just one plant, its MOS 1 factory in East Kilbride, Scotland, apparently churns out millions of the things a year. Though it will not say how many units it makes in total each year, or reveal what kind of revenues it makes, its own literature quotes Dataquest’s estimate that Motorola has 19% of the total embedded market and In-Stat Inc’s estimate that a total of 2,100m microcontrollers were shipped last year, bringing in revenues of $5,800m. Compared with all the other PowerPC launches, the RMCU 505 emerged with a surprisingly muted fanfare. Where was the ‘RISC is best’ message? Where was the ‘PowerPC is the way, the truth, the light’? The difference in tone can be attributed to the fact that, whereas PowerPC is Motorola’s only egg in the desktop-personal computer basket, in the embedded market, PowerPC is just one of a huge Motorola clutch. One Motorola insider – who does work on the RISC product line, was actually heard to utter the immortal phrase there has been a lot of RISC hype and people have been told to use RISC even if they don’t want to at the RMCU 505 launch. Your correspondent nearly choked on his quail’s eggs. The situation was highlighted by the nearly simultaneous announcement of the Motorola 68060 processor family, the last member of the dynasty that until now, has powered Apple Computer Inc’s Macintoshes. The 68060 is almost entirely aimed at the embedded market and it can pack a bigger processing punch than the initial RMCU 505. Motorola, then, is preparing to face the future with a dual-strand policy: the 68060 for developers that want to carry on using their existing tools, and the RMCU 505 for those wanting to take the plunge into RISC. The company says that it is working with Kaleida Labs Inc in Mountain View and Scientific Atlanta Inc, Norcross, Georgia, to develop the next generation of digital home-communication terminals. Ask how Motorola intends to position the 68060 and the RMCU 505 and the company is quite sanguine: we don’t force the customer in either direction says UK RISC product marketing engineer Ian Fergusson. He even admits that RISC has its problems in the embedded environment – namely code expansion. If there is one thing that customers of embedded applications want it is small, compact applications. Who is going to buy a video recorder with 2Mb of RAM? In this area, RISC is at a disadvantage – code size expands as instruction sets decrease. Ask IBM about its strategy and you won’t get a very cogent answer, other than a list of potential markets. The story is still being formulated, it seems. But both Motorola and IBM are betting that a whole new type of application, which can broadly be categorised as the interactive multi-media super video-on-demand highway games console sort-of-thing will drive demand for 32-bit embedded processors, particular processors with excellent floating point performance like the PowerPC. In this market, RAM-cram is less important than processing power. Not surprisingly, the players in the iAPX-86 camp are also turning their attention to the high-end embedded controller market.

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Last October Intel Corp unveiled the embedded 80386EX and picked up the weighty support of Microsoft at Work – the embedded executive for everything from fax machines to photocopiers and printers. It has just announced sampling of the EX. Areas Intel identifies as key include PABX line cards, hand-held point of sale terminals, and a host of others, from network boards and avionics to cellular phones and medical systems. As Intel’s desktop focus moves to Pentium, the 80386, and eventually the 80486, will be repackaged as embedded cores. However, it is not certain that Intel’s dominance on the desktop will transla

te to the embedded market, particularly as there is, apparently a certain kudos attached to having a RISC in your box. Intel, of course, has the 80960 embedded processor, which it claims is the single best-selling RISC in the world. The company is about to launch the 32-bit 80960CA version (previously code-named Cobra). This chip, Intel insists, is more than capable of giving PowerPC a run for its money. Still, if the projections are right, there will be more than enough room for everyone to play.

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