by November 28, 2000 0 comments

The field of embedded systems has been steadily growing over
the past couple of years. Embedded systems involve the miniaturization of
electronics so that it can fit into compact devices. It also deals with the
software required to drive the associated hardware. This year, embedded systems
received a lot of attention, due to the rise of portable devices like handhelds,
PDAs, Internet set-top boxes, etc. Moreover, wireless devices and technologies
like Bluetooth have also seen a lot of development.

With so many applications, all major microprocessor
manufacturers are building their own embedded processors. Many companies have
started using existing microprocessor cores and modifying them to suit embedded
devices. AMD, for example, recently introduced its AMD-K6-2E processor in two
flavors for embedded applications. These have gained support from industry
players like Lucent for its WAN/ VPN products line.

Motorola has been a significant player in the embedded
processors field over the last couple of years. They have the 68K cores at the
low-end, ColdFire in the mid-range and PowerPC for higher-end applications.
Various enhanced versions of ColdFire have been used in a multitude of devices.
Another contender for the marketshare is Intel, who went the embedded way with
its i960 processor, based on 1.0 micron technology. The same team was then put
into developing the StrongArm, which is based on 0.18 micron technology. This
processor became quite popular, and found its way into devices like the Compaq
iPAQ pocket PC, HP Jornada handheld PC, mobile phones and various digital
imaging products.

MIPS Technologies licenses out its microprocessor cores to
other companies and application developers. To give you an idea of its
popularity, you’ll find MIPS-compatibles in almost every device you can think
of, ranging from printers, copiers, scanners, routers, to robotic toys, smart
cards, and gaming consoles.

Another trend noticed this year was the growing popularity of
Market Specific Processors (MSPs) over Application Specific Integrated Circuits,
more commonly known as ASICs. In ASICs, the drawback is that they need heavier
investments and longer time spans to develop. Plus, they can’t be customized
later as the software instructions for them are put on a ROM, which is difficult
to modify. On the other hand, MSP is essentially an application-specific product
built around a general purpose CPU core. The software in this case is written
for the specific application and can be easily redone if need be. An example is
the Maverick, a chip from Cirrus Logic, which uses the ARM (StrongArm) core, and
finds application in portable MP3 players.

Other devices that will run on MSPs include Internet set-top
boxes, gaming consoles, and wireless Internet-enabled handheld gadgets. These
devices need a software-configurable embedded processor that can run real-time
software modules to handle different functions like protocols, physical
interfaces, peripherals, and applications. With an on-chip flash memory program,
such a chip would allow quick and easy reconfiguration for evolving product
needs.

These applications clearly suggest the direction this market
will take. We’ll have more devices running on embedded systems. These in turn
will run on very little power but will offer higher speeds.

Ashish Sharma

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