Open a new wireless router and you probably won't find a processor chip, although last year's models had one. The same thing is happening in DSL modems and other high-volume applications.
These boxes still have a processor, but it has been absorbed into another chip, such as the 802.11 or DSL controller. The interesting thing is that the new integrated processors don't come from traditional processor vendors.
Integrating functions into processors isn't new. For years, processor vendors have added memory controllers, serial ports and other simple I/O interfaces to increase the value of their devices.
But the newest integrated devices turn that trend around: Instead of integrating peripherals into a processor, vendors now integrate a processor into their peripherals. This may sound the same, but the end result is different.
Wireless-LAN processors are now available from Atheros, Broadcom, Conexant, Marvell and others. These vendors have developed and validated their own 802.11 technology in WLAN client chip sets, then simply added a CPU core licensed from MIPS or another intellectual-property vendor.
Traditional processor vendors such as Intel, Motorola and IDT do not offer WLAN-integrated processors. These vendors have focused on improving their processor cores, not on developing 802.11 technology, which is neither readily licensable nor easily developed internally.
As a result, these traditional vendors have been slow to counter the new wave of highly integrated processors. Intel is the only one in this group with its own WLAN technology, and the company could combine its Xscale processor with a WLAN controller by the end of this year.
Motorola is busy spinning out its industry-leading embedded-processor business. Despite the company's experience with cell phones and DSP chips, it does not have its own wireless-LAN, DSL or Ethernet PHY technology. Although these short-comings could be addressed through acquisition, Motorola has little history in acquiring other companies.
While transistor budgets continue to grow rapidly, the demand for processor performance in many applications is not growing. As a result, the die area devoted to the CPU has shrunk to the point that it is no longer the most important or the most complicated circuit in many systems.
In today's highly integrated devices, the focus is on the complex mixed-signal interfaces; the processor is almost an afterthought. This trend is tipping the balance of power away from processor vendors such as Motorola and toward mixed-signal vendors such as Broadcom.
Linley Gwennap is founder and principal analyst of The Linley Group and co-author of A Guide to Storage Networking Silicon (www.linleygroup.com/npu).