Laying down a new industry threshold for price and performance, STMicroelectronics Inc., Lexington, Mass., has locked in on the growing market for embedded, integrated-system processors with its STPC Industrial system-on-a-chip.
Costing less than $40, the 133-MHz device shreds the $100 price tag of system-on-a-chip rival National Semiconductor Corp., Santa Clara, Calif., which is pitching its faster MediaPC processor as the engine for a sub-$500 consumer PC.
But instead of targeting the traditional PC market, ST is pinning its hopes on applications such as information kiosks, vending machines, and handheld terminals used for specific functions such as car-rental check-in and factory automation.
The STPC Industrial, which is sampling at about a dozen ST customer sites and is slated for volume production in February, combines a fifth-generation PC core with support logic and a variety of peripherals and interfaces.
The chip incorporates a fully static x86 processor with a graphics chipset, as well as a TFT flat-panel display controller, PCMCIA card interface, local system bus, a PS/2 mouse controller, two serial ports, and a universal parallel port. The device is manufactured at ST's fabs in Phoenix and Crolles, France, on a 0.35-micron process.
Because of the STPC Industrial's integrated design, which ST boasts is the first of its kind to reach the market, the company should be able to keep its selling price stable, according to Jean-Claude F. Monney, director of marketing for ST's new ventures group.
The processor core includes a five-stage pipeline, a parallel-processing integral floating-point unit, and an 8-Kbyte unified instruction and data level-one cache. Operating temperature ranges from -40°C to +85°C. By combining those functions in a single chip, ST has cut its production costs in half, Monney said.
For months now, Brian Halla, National's chairman, president, and chief executive, has heralded the coming of an "information appliance" revolution by talking up his company's plans for system-on-a-chip products with much faster Pentium- and Pentium MMX-class processor cores. Dubbed the MediaPC, National plans to move the chip into production in June 1999.
Rather than "pick a fight" with companies such as Intel, Motorola, and National, ST is seeking to extend the PC architecture-which is widely supported by the engineering and programming communities-into other areas, Monney said.
Indeed, with a $5-billion market projected for embedded system-on-a-chip components by 2001, ST's x86-based design is aimed at a range of embedded platforms that already incorporate the x86 architecture, according to analyst Tony Massimini of Semico Research Corp., Phoenix. "Being out there, getting design wins, and showing product off to customers is certainly important, especially since National has made such big noise out of it," Massimini said.
And demand for lower-end x86 chips is likely to increase, giving the STPC Industrial and its derivatives room to maneuver, according to Massimini. "There's a lot of potential market out there," he said. "The x86 over the last several years has quietly established itself in industrial control and telecom. These are the main markets right now for today's x86s that don't go into PCs."
ST's strategy of targeting non-PC applications stems partly from the fact that the STPC Industrial's maximum core clock speed is only 133 MHz, compared with the much faster clock speeds expected from rival systems-on-a-chip. While ST is currently working on enhancements to the STPC Industrial to increase speeds, the company's present marketing strategy sidesteps some of the pressures felt by PC-processor vendors who must constantly increase frequencies, according to Massimini.
"You will see a Pentium-class system-on-a-chip from them, as well as Pentium MMX, eventually," Massimini said.
Perhaps even more important than the design and processing power of ST's new chip is its low cost. With the potential to enable a complete PC system for less than $100, ST executives said they are paving the way for entirely new high-volume markets.