Follow @jack_ganssle

The logo for The Embedded Muse For novel ideas about building embedded systems (both hardware and firmware), join the 27,000+ engineers who subscribe to The Embedded Muse, a free biweekly newsletter. The Muse has no hype, no vendor PR. It takes just a few seconds (just enter your email, which is shared with absolutely no one) to subscribe.

By Jack Ganssle

Intel Bows Out

Published 5/24/2006

In 1971 Intel invented the embedded systems market when they introduced the world's first microprocessor, the 4004. This 4 bitter was pretty minimal and required an enormous amount of support circuitry. The much more useful 8008 followed soon thereafter.

But in 1976 they introduced the 8048, possibly the first microcontroller, which had on-board memory and peripherals. This part made very low cost embedded systems possible and later morphed into the 8051, a device now with hundreds of variants produced by dozens of vendors.

Everyone knows how their 8088 beat out Motorola's 68000 for the PC. But Intel also produced an embedded version of the 8088/86, their 80186/188, a pair of CPUs with enormous popularity even today. I recently got a 186 board from JK Micro for some experiments.

ESD reader Bruce Pride alerted me that a couple of weeks ago Intel released an end-of-life bulletin for these parts and many more. The company will stop producing the 8051, 251, 8096/196, 188/186, i960, all versions of the 386 (including the 386EX) and 486. See http://developer.intel.com/design/pcn/Processors/D0106013.pdf . In all, some 700 part numbers are going away. Intel, the greatest embedded processor company, will only offer Pentiums and Pentium-like CPUs for embedded apps.

I thought it was a crime when HP, once possibly the world's best test equipment company, spun off that business and became just a printer manufacturer. Then Motorola, originator of the wonderfully orthogonal ISA 68k, the ultra low power 68HC05 and so many other great CPUs, decided that cell phones were more interesting than processors. Now Intel is all-but-abandoning the embedded systems business.

They're still interested in one segment of the market: ultra-high-end applications that need the power of parts like their XScale and Core Duo, the latter essentially two Pentiums on a chip. Ironically, Freescale (nee Motorola) recently released the MC9RS08KA (http://www.freescale.com/files/abstract/overview/TSP8507_KA2_LANDG.htm?tid=t8lpKA ) a super-cool 6 pin part that retails for just $0.43 (1000 quantity) that's just 3 by 3 mm square. A grain of rice looks big in comparison. The part has only 2k of flash and 63 bytes of RAM but is ideally suited for a wide range of embedded apps that don't need a lot of horsepower.

No doubt gross margins on Intel's Core Duo devices will make any MBA salivate. But that market is miniscule compared to the 9 billion embedded processors shipped each year, most of which are tiny devices controlling flashlights, sneakers, car windows, mice, smart beer mugs, intelligent toilets, remote controls and a million other products.

Intel's real embedded processors probably represents a fraction of the company's revenue (they don't break the numbers out in their SEC filings). The VP of embedded no doubt has to wait an awfully long time for a meeting with the president, while the VP of desktop CPUs probably gets time with no notice. I can understand the business forces that mandate a decision to stop producing 700 different parts. Some of the discontinued processors seem almost quaint - who buys 16 MHz 386s? But others are core components for many OEMs.

Current users of the 8051, 251, 8096/196, 188/186, i960, 386 and 486 are basically out of luck. Orders won't be accepted after March, 2007. Pin for pin second sources mostly don't exist, though AMD continues to make variants of the 186, and lots of companies produce various flavors of the 8051.

Better start redesigning your PCBs today.