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Forum Feature Microchip on the March

by Tom Cantrell

The 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 ( are in, and quite a story they tell. Check out their summary in Table 1.

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 leader—Motorola.

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 marketing.

Technically speaking 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 guy—an 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 ( and you can see the cult-like loyalty Microchip enjoys.

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 10–15% 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.

Immediately, Microchip 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.

Figure 1

Figure 1—The PIC may be old, but it's got legs. Microchip blows past 8-bit MCU competitors like they're standing still, threatens perennial front-runner Motorola.

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.…


Force sensors
Bokam Engineering, Inc.
(714) 513-2200
Fax: (714) 513-2204

Gyration, Inc.
(408) 255-3016
Fax: (408) 255-9075

Hewlett-Packard Co.
(425) 335-2654
Fax: (425) 335-2220

HMC2003, HMR2300
Honeywell, Inc.
Solid State Electronics Ctr.
(612) 954-2888
Fax: (612) 954-2582

IR-linked data logger
Lascar Electronics, Inc.
(912) 234-2048
Fax: (912) 234-2049

Maxim Integrated Products
(408) 737-7600
Fax: (408) 737-7194

Shape Tape, Shape Sensor
Measurand, Inc.
(506) 462-9119
Fax: (506) 462-9095

National Semiconductor
(800) 737-7018
(408) 721-5000

Sensory, Inc.
(408) 744-9000
Fax: (408) 744-1299


ARCHIVE of Design Forum—All articles were written in 1998.