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By Jack Ganssle

8 Bits is Dead

Summary: Conventional wisdom is that low-end processors are a dead-end.

Read the press and it's pretty clear this is a 32/64 bit world. If you're not building a system with the latest high-end processor you're clearly a dinosaur whose extinction is near. That asteroid? It's the latest CPU from Intel or ARM.

Maybe not.

Consider Microchip. This is a company which took over a failed processor line that had been poorly marketed by General Instruments. By any objective means the low-end PIC processors are pretty much brain-dead parts. They have limited instruction sets with small address spaces. Everyone knows you can't write code in less than 640K of memory, so real programmers will use an Atom over a PIC any day.

But PICs thrive. Today Microchip has over 700 difference microcontrollers which represent 80% of their business. Though they have a 32 bit line these represent a relatively small section of their market. Mostly they sell 8 and 16 bit devices. And sell these they do, in Sagan-like numbers. Over 6 billion PICs have hit the streets to date.

With the economy in the dumper the semiconductor vendors are suffering along with the rest of the world. But not Microchip. They announced record sales the last quarter, putting them on track to do $1.5 billion in yearly sales. The quarter was up 68% over the same period last year. Profits, too, improved, and the dividend was increased.

They're clearly doing something right.

But this also says something about the low end of the embedded processor market. While speedy (and hot) 45nm parts get all of the glamour, a lot of the computing workload shouldered by embedded devices just doesn't need a lot of horsepower. How big of a heat sink can one afford on a smart toothbrush, after all?

For twenty years pundits have been predicting the death of 8 bits. I disagree; as high-end processors drop in price those at the bottom get cheaper too, which opens up new markets that could never have afforded semiconductor intelligence.

I believe that the golden age of 8 bits has not yet arisen. As prices head to zero volumes will soar putting today's numbers to shame.

If your specialty is 8051 or PIC or other low-end CPU work, you're not a dinosaur. You're that squirrel-like creature on the forest floor: the first mammal, the herald of a new age.

Published November 7, 2010