8-bit MCU may not be glamorous but, with shipments
growing past two billion units per year, it remains
the workhorse of the microelectronics revolution.
Now, the results of DataQuest's 1997 Microcontroller
Market Share and Unit Shipments report (www.dataquest.com)
are in, and quite a story they tell. Check out their
summary in Table
The bottom line: Microchip
continues their run-up in the ranks, leaping from
5th place in 1996 to 2nd in 1997. They shipped an
amazing 176 million units in 1997, practically one
for every man, woman, and child in the USA. It's
a stunning achievement, and one that sets the stage
for the mother of all MCU wars with the perpetual
Keep in mind the DataQuest
numbers include "captive" (i.e., internal)
use within the global conglomerates that make up
most of the top 10. By contrast, Microchip earns
their keep in the merchant market, making their
numbers all the more impressive.
One might imagine a
small upstart could only manage such a feat by relying
on some compelling technical advantage. Not so with
the Microchip PIC. It's an MCU that traces its heritage
back to practically the dawn of ICs.
The story starts in
the early 1970s with General Instruments, a company
founded in 1966, successfully pioneering the application
of LSI in the consumer marketplace in things like
calculators, digital watches and clocks, TV remotes,
toys, and the like.
The PIC was just a
minor line item in an extensive GI catalog of hundreds
of parts, covering everything from Pong games to
ROM chips. Actually, the very first "Peripheral
Interface Controller" was intended to work
as a coprocessor with GIs CP1600, a 16-bit micro
with third-generation minicomputer architecture.
Needless to say, the
world never got to see a fourth generation. Ultimately,
like a lot of others (Synertek, MOS Technology,
and AMI), GI went over the falls as the first wave
of consumer electronics gadgets crashed in the mid-1980s.
I seem to recall that soured ROM deals with a doomed
Atari were the final straw. Ultimately, in 1989,
the smoking hulk of once-proud GI was sold off.
Microchip rose from its ashes.
The Little Chip That Could
So, just how is it
that the sleepy little PIC (a yawn-inspiring 20th
place in DataQuest's 1990 rankings) has come to
humble the giants? It's a combination of coincidence,
competitors' missteps, and no shortage of savvy
the PIC wins favor for its RISC-like architecture
(e.g., only 33 instructions), though reduction in
this case was a byproduct of necessity rather than
architectural fashion. Sure, it only has a two-level
stack, but that's OK since there are no interrupts.
The fact of the matter
is: the 8-bit market has never been about technical
whizziness but just getting the job done. Witness
the fact that the PIC isn't the only old-timer on
the top-10 list; Motorola's '68, Philips '51, and
Zilog's Z8 are no spring chickens.
Microchip isn't necessarily
the first to come up with a new idea, but they are
very quick to pick up good ones (such as OTP, in-circuit
programming, small (8-20 pin) packages, low-voltage
operation, etc.) and run hard with them.
Competitors have aided
Microchip's cause with a fair amount of foot shooting,
notably periodic shortages that leave irate customers
ready for a switch. Microchip, of course, is only
too ready to oblige.
Not to finesse it,
but the bigger outfits have also fallen prey to
their own inattention and complacency. It's all
too easy for a huge conglomerate to lose track of
the little division over in the corner. By contrast,
there's no mistaking the mission at Microchip-make
PIC the #1 eight-bit MCU, Period.
Perhaps at first out
of necessity, but then as an overt strategy, Microchip
has courted the little guyan assortment of
garage shops, skunk works, consultants, and university
types that make up the primordial brew from which
new designs, and customers, emerge. Check out some
of the PIC links on the web (www.microchip.com/10/rSites/Enthus/index.html)
and you can see the cult-like loyalty Microchip
I've heard that Apple
originally chose the 6502 because Intel wouldn't
bother with a couple of hippies in a garage. Don't
know if the story is true, but the message is. Microchip
knows that it's not only the number of chips sold,
but the number of designers singing their chips'
praises that gets and keeps the bandwagon going.
Other MCU suppliers may rely on a few huge accounts
(including internal) for volume, but Microchip spreads
the PIC gospel to 20,000 customers with the top
10 accounting for only 1015% of sales.
Penny Pinching Punch Out
As I said earlier,
Microchip may not land the first punch, but they're
always quick to counter.
Early this year, Motorola
made headlines announcing a $ 0.50 OTP version ('KJ1)
of their venerable 68HC05 MCU. It was a well-landed
jab and a wise break from the defensive rope-a-dope
posture they've seemingly relied on to maintain
their MCU lead.
responded with a flurry of releases touting their-you
guessed it-$0.49 OTP, the PIC16C505. For those who
are curious, Figure 1 sums up the two parts' features.
1The PIC may be old, but it's
got legs. Microchip blows past 8-bit MCU competitors
like they're standing still, threatens perennial
Microchip may be #2,
but they plan to try harder. The question: will
Motorola be able to focus their formidable resources
and hold off the challenge? Stay tuned.
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