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.
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.