The Embedded Revolution

Processor makers show off new designs at forum last week as innovations continue amid slump

Despite a stumbling economy that has rippled through the high-tech industry, processor makers are churning out new designs they said they hope will help fuel a turnaround.

At the Embedded Processor Forum here last week, 13 processor cores were unveiled, from new designs such as IBMs Gekko processor, which will power Nintendo Co. Ltd.s Gamecube video machine later this year, to PMC-Sierra Inc.s RM9000x2 integrated multiprocessor, which features two 64-bit processors running at 1GHz built on a single die.

Other innovations touted included Milpitas, Calif., company LSI Logic Corp.s LiquidLogic core, which it said features the reconfigurability of a programmable chip with the low cost, low power and high performance of a standard logic chip. In addition, ClearSpeed Technology Ltd., of Bristol, England, demonstrated a new chip that is 16 times more powerful than network chips currently driving the Internet, according to company officials.

"This is a time of huge innovation," said Steve Leibson, director of the Embedded Processor Forum and editor of the Microprocessor Report, in Sunnyvale, Calif. "This forum is certainly evidence that the companies are not pulling back as far as R&D [research and development] is concerned. The bright companies know that this is the best time to retrench and get ready for the next upturn."

Embedded processors, while lacking the name recognition of their beefier PC brethren—such as Intel Corp.s Pentium products or Advanced Micro Devices Inc.s Athlons—account for more than 90 percent of silicon processors sold and about 50 percent of chip revenue, Leibson said.

In addition, advances in embedded processors could have more direct implications for most peoples lives since the chips power numerous devices, from PDAs (personal digital assistants) to cell phones.

"For example, you have about 20 to 50 of them in a new car," Leibson said.

The much smaller embedded chip is designed to handle specific workloads, rather than the multitude of tasks PCs are often called on to do. While that reduces the chips flexibility, it also provides advantages. Embedded chips are much cheaper to produce than PC chips and have proved to be more reliable.

For example, the Palm Inc. handheld has gained widespread acceptance for its simple ability to safely and reliably manage and provide access to personal data. Yet at heart is a 16MHz to 33MHz Motorola Inc. embedded processor, DragonBall. While such speeds are archaic in PCs, the chips reliable performance is a key aspect to Palms success in becoming the vendor of the top-selling PDA.