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					Embedded Processors by the Numbers

by Jim Turley

About zero percent of the world's microprocessors are used
in computers. Yup. Every PC, Macintosh, engineering
workstation, Cray supercomputer, and all the other general-
purpose computers put together account for less than 1% of
all the microprocessors sold every year. If you round off the
fractions, embedded systems consume 100% of the
worldwide production of microprocessors.

Don't believe it? Count how many computers you own or
use. Probably one or two at work and another one or two at
home, right? If you're a pathological computer user like me,
that total might reach closer to a dozen. Now count the
number of embedded systems you own or use, if you can.
Have a digital cellular telephone? There's one. A pager?
There's another. Don't forget to count your microwave oven,
washer, dryer, dishwasher, coffee maker, refrigerator, VCR,
television, video-game console, stereo receiver, CD player,
DVD player, portable Discman, remote control for the TV,
remote for the VCR, remote for the stereo, garage-door
opener, automatic sprinkler timer, fax machine, PDA,
answering machine, and so on.

Check in the garage. Your average car (classic British sports
cars excepted) has about 15 microprocessors in it. The new
Mercedes S-class has 63 microprocessors; a 1999 BMW 7-
series has 65. Where are they all lurking? There's one
microprocessor in each headlight of a new Lexus, BMW, or
Mercedes. There's another one in each rear-view mirror.
Airbags generally each have their own microprocessor. The
Volvo S70 has not one, but two CAN buses running through
it, connecting the microprocessors in the mirrors with those
in the doors with those in the transmission. The mirrors talk
to the transmission so that they can tilt down and inwards
when you put the car in reverse. The radio talks with the
antilock brakes so that the volume can go up and down with
road speed (the ABS has the most accurate speed
information). The airbags talk to the GPS receiver, which
talks to the built-in cell phone so that if your new Cadillac
gets in a serious accident it can call for help and report its
exact location. If it's stolen, it can call the police and report
exactly where it is and where it's going.

I figure the average middle-class household has about 40 to
50 microprocessors in it—or 55 if you own a PC. There's the
famous microprocessor on the motherboard, of course, but
there's also one in every IBM PC keyboard; one on each
floppy, hard, and CD-ROM drive; one on the 3D accelerator
card; and probably one each on your modem and your
network-interface card. Force-feedback joysticks and wheels
add even more, as do USB peripherals, printers, SCSI
controllers, and Zip or tape drives. Even your video-game
console likely has multiple CPUs. Sega's Saturn game player
has four different 32-bit microprocessors in it. The Nintendo
64 has two; the Sony PlayStation has one. Ironically, their
success seems to be inversely proportional to the amount of
computing power each system has.

Gordon Moore predicted that the number of transistors one
could fit on a given amount of silicon would double about
every 18 months, and so far, he's been right. Personally, I
predict that the amount of computing power we carry on our
person will double every 12 months. As cellular telephones
get more powerful, as pagers become more capable, and as
electronics organizers and PDAs become more useful, the
amount of "personal MIPS" will double annually. (Another
irony: Windows CE-based palm-size PCs have about 10
times the processor horsepower of 3Com's Palm organizer,
yet they are noticeably slower.)

Last year, microprocessor makers built and sold almost 250
million 32-bit embedded microprocessors. (Source:
MicroDesign Resources, January 1999) That's one new 32-
bit embedded CPU for every man, woman, and child living in
the United States. That's also more than double the number
of PCs sold around the world in the same year. Seen
another way, Motorola sold almost as many 68k chips to
embedded customers as Intel sold Pentium II processors to
PC makers. Hitachi's sales of 32-bit chips outstripped AMD's
PC sales by a two-to-one margin. Heck, even AMD's 29K
processors (remember those?) were more successful, on a
per-unit basis, than IDT's WinChip used in PCs.

Add to that 250 million 32-bit chips the much greater
number of 16-bit processors, estimated at over one billion
per year. Then add another billion eight-bit processors, and
another billion four-bitters. Suddenly, the 100 million PCs,
Macs, workstations, and supercomputers don't seem like
such a big deal.

So how come all the press and glory goes to Intel and its PC
competitors? How can a product with approximately 0% of
the market get so much attention? Well, Intel may have a
small slice of the overall pie, but it has the biggest slice of
one very important pie. (As we've seen, Intel does not
control the microprocessor market; it controls the PC
processor market, a major distinction that's frequently lost
on the six o'clock news.) No other chip maker dominates
one product category, such as cell phones, printers, or video
games, the way Intel dominates PCs. And no other chip
maker makes the kind of profit from these embedded
systems that Intel gets from its PC processors. We figure
the Pentium II costs Intel about $65 to make, vs. the $200
to $500 price tag these chips carry. (Note that a 450MHz
Pentium II costs no more to manufacture than the 350MHz
version; they're the exact same silicon.)

All of this, surprisingly, is good news for embedded
hardware developers. With so much volume, and so many
competitors all scrambling for your business, prices are low
and selection is high. With no dominant vendor dictating
pricing, competition is fierce. With no single chip family
cornering compatibility, choices are many and varied.
Embedded designers, rejoice! Keep up the good work. Let's
see how we can add to that 100%.

Jim Turley is the senior editor of Microprocessor Report . He
is also a speaker and industry analyst, specializing in
microprocessors for handheld, portable, and embedded
applications

				
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