It's generally conceded that embedded systems will play a dominant role in electronics markets for a long time to come. The PC may have started the digital revolution four decades ago but PCs have now evolved into a mature market. The action for 2005 is in embedded systems of all descriptionsbut most specifically consumer electronics.
Consumer applications are a strong driver of semiconductor trends because this is increasingly where communications, computing, and entertainment converge. Digital media, in particular, will create new and fast growing markets for embedded systems designers.
Consumer applications offer great potential for both the MCU and DSP semiconductor product segments in 2005. In fact, while the Semiconductor Industry Association has forecast about a 1% growth rate for the entire industry, the DSP market is expected to grow at about 20%, according to Will Strauss, president of Forward Concepts, a leading DSP market and technical analysis firm.
The vast microcontroller market will grow at a more modest rate, in part because of its enormous size.
Digital Design Revolution
Over the past few years, we've seen several trends emerge in chip design to respond to the digitalization of media. First, DSPs have become a hot market because digital media and algorithmic calculation are almost synonymous. Second, MCUsalways the workhorse of consumer electronicshave been successfully executing the strategy of the three Ps: more performance, more peripherals, and lower power.
Performance can be delivered with 32-bit processors, which means that the decision of ARM Ltd. to license its cores to MCU vendors should be viewed as creating a major change in the industry. 2004 witnessed the first ARM-based standard MCUs. More ARM-based products are arriving every quarter. Market share is still quite small and it will be interesting to see how it grows in 2005.
Another aspect of MCU performance is signal processing capability, which is being designed into MCUs by creating hybrid architectures. Microchip Technology's digital signal controllers (DSCs) are one example. Texas Instruments and Freescale Semiconductor have taken a similar route by adapting their DSP architectures to better cope with control-oriented applications.
Contrary to previous attempts to bolt signal processing onto an MCU architecture or vice versa, all three companies created new architectures for their hybrids. Typically this means having a stack architecture and bit manipulation capability for control-oriented operations and multiply-and-accumulate (MAC) and looping capability for signal-processing operations.
The DSC revolution is just beginning. 2005 will witness an uptake in DSC applications beyond the most obviousmotor controlinto virtually anything that moves and is controlled electronically (see Leading-Edge Motor Control Designs Mix DSP and MCU Advantages).
In 2005, DSCs will grab more market share in cost-sensitive consumer applications such as appliances, washing machines, and other white goods. In the industrial/commercial market they will target HVAC blowers and fans; factory automation; industrial air conditioning and refrigeration; and elevators and cranes. Vibration control, power management in products such as uninterruptible power supplies, and even large LED lighting displays are prime DSC markets beyond motor control.
Tool developmentand integration of DSC-specific tool features into the existing embedded development environmenthas been another primary focus for companies that have fielded DSCs over the past few years. The general idea is to make signal-processing development look as much like an MCU as possible and this typically means automatic code generators. This trend will continue into 2005.
On the other hand, DSCs are not particularly capable with digital media in large part due to their relatively low clock rates and the application specific nature of their signal processing architectures. The basic requirements of streaming media differ quite a bit from those of motor control, for example.
Meanwhile, DSP vendors who do have their eye on digital media will increasingly read from the MCU playbook by integrating more peripherals adopting a third-party tools strategy similar to the one MCU vendors have used for a decade or more.
DSPs: Wireless Now, Video Tomorrow
The cutting edge of DSP architectures will continue to be hardware accelerators implemented as relatively small circuit blocks that provide a performance boost by executing specific algorithms.
Accelerators also bring considerable value to the table by conserving power. The traditional method of boosting performance by cranking up the clock speed means a good part of the entire chip has to run faster when a video algorithm, for example, is executed. Adding a few thousand gates optimized for executing a specific algorithm saves a lot of power.
Introducing parallelism into the system also means the chip maker can maintain the same instruction set, which is itself no mean achievement. The trend toward hardware accelerators has been led by small companies such as Improv Systems but DSP giant Texas Instruments also surrounds some of its DSPs with highly optimized acceleratorsfor specific algorithms.
A salient example of how the MCU and DSP worlds are converging is the mid-2004 introduction of ARM's OptimoDE, a design tool and compiler for signal processing accelerators that can be designed right into ARM-core-based ASICs and SoCs (see Optimizing DSP Performance and Minimizing Risk).
Wireless is, of course, the primary market driver for DSPs and the ramp up of 3G phones in Europe will keep it that way in 2005, according to Forward Concepts' Strauss.
From an applications perspective, video is destined to be even more important for DSPs than it has been in past years. New products such as video IP set-top boxes, video phones (including 3G phones), and networked video security are hot applications, according to TI's Joseph Rigazzio, worldwide marketing manager for DSP catalog products.
In the security realm, it's not just new surveillance products that are going digital. Digitized video has powerful advantages over analog video that has been the mainstay of security for decades. With digitized images, it is easier for computers to recognize what's going on and determining how to respond, says Rigazzio.
MCUs Don't Miss a Beat
From a technology perspective, the trends of the past few years will continue into 2005.
Semiconductor vendors who have a broad MCU portfolio have adopted strategies to maximize revenue by finding the perfect balance between high-volume, low-profit-margin 8-bit parts with lower-volume, higher-profit-margin 16- and 32-bit parts (see More for Less: Stable Future for 8-bit Microcontrollers). Most observers do not see a particularly bright future for 4-bit parts.
Renesas Technology has a variation on the move-them-along theme. It has forsaken its 8-bit architecture but offers 16-bit chips that are code compatible with previous generations of its 8-bit parts. Companies that had not carved out leading market shares in the various MCU architectures have opted to leapfrog to the 32-bit arena by utilizing ARM cores.
Companies such as Philips Semiconductors, Oki Semiconductor, Atmel, and Sharp Microelectronics are betting that the widely accepted ARM architecture along with its equally capable development tools will give them a new start. Standard MCUs with ARM cores can offer excellent performance at prices as low as $3.20 per chip. Moreover, an ARM-based MCU plus a small ASIC can give an SoC a run for its money in some applications.
ARM's MCU partners will spend their time and creative energies on developing families of chips for fairly narrow application spaces. The big advantage of ARM-based MCUs for OEM and ODM design teams, of course, is the price competition that will result. No longer will porting to a new architecture be a major consequenceand concernwhen switching to a new semiconductor vendor.
Beyond Technology, Into Training
Beyond the technology innovations, the most significant trends in MCUs during 2005 will be in where MCU designs are being developed and how semiconductor companies keep in touch with globally diverse design teams.
According to Kevin Kilbane, strategic marketing manager for Freescale Semiconductor, design teams using MCUs are popping up all over the globe. China is a hot spot, of course, but Freescaleto cite just one exampleis staffing up its field-application engineer corps in India, Mexico, and Brazil as well. It has opened regional design centers in Eastern Europe, Mexico, and China (visit TechOnLine's Course Catalog for a complete listing of courses and lectures).
Reaching design engineers all over the globe is a job that fits the Web quite well. Kilbane notes that Freescale's use of online training modules has proven very successful. Its most frequently visited online course on TechOnLine's Web site is in designing with 8-bit MCUs and that module was put on the Web more than four years ago.
Online training is not a "pin-compatible" substitute for in-person seminars, he says, but it allows companies to "raise the bar" in their in-person efforts. Engineers who learn architectural basics on the Web are treated to more sophisticated and advanced training when they attend an in-person seminar than they would have received in pre-Web days.
Less than a decade ago, DSPs and MCUs ruled in entirely different embedded domains. DSPs did signal processing and MCUs did control. Now, thanks to higher performance, higher levels of integration, and a changing, challenging mix of applications, they are competing with each other in a few broad application areas.
In 2005, expect to see this competition intensify. Don't be surprised to see more 32-bit MCUs with RISC cores and built-in signal processing capability.
About the Author
Contributing writer Jack Shandle is a former chief editor of both Electronic Design magazine and ChipCenter.com. He holds a BSEE degree and has written hundreds of articles on all aspects of the electronics OEM industry. Jack is president of e-ContentWorks, a consultancy that creates high-value content for publishers, eOEM corporations, and industry associations. His email address is email@example.com.