15 billion sockets up for grabs

The battle lines in the microprocessor/microcontroller market are drawn more clearly today than ever before. Not too long ago, I was writing about how MIPS could make a run at the ARM space, thanks to the launch of Microchip's 32-bit line of microcontrollers. But now the fire seems to be fueled by a couple of significantly larger players, with a third player looming in the wings. The first two are ARM partners, while the third is an ARM competitor. In the end, it's the embedded system developer who will likely profit.

The battle for microprocessor/ microcontroller sockets has been fought for as long as I can remember. Intel versus AMD was the main event early on, but now there's clearly a new competition, on a somewhat different battlefield. In the quest to enable “15 billion devices by the year 2015,” Intel is using its Atom processor as the CPU of choice for the embedded-Internet/ Internet-enabled devices. Those devices may be handheld, or they may be wire-line connected. But it's clear that Intel thinks that the Atom processor is a great candidate to drive them all.

Where the Atom likely isn't a fit is in the traditional mobile handset. The processor that's a clear winner in the handset space is ARM. Although ARM obviously doesn't produce silicon, it produces the IP that's behind the silicon in a staggering number of handsets. But ARM wants more. It wants a piece of those 15 billion devices, just like Intel. So while Intel is pushing down from a more general-purpose, higher performance perspective, ARM is pushing up from a lower power, less performance standpoint (although I'm sure ARM would take issue with my “less performance” point).

With a series of announcements by Texas Instruments, Intel has a new ARM-based competitor. TI has been strong in the ARM camp for years with its OMAP architecture, winning more than its share of sockets in handsets. But now, it becomes very clear why the company made the acquisition of Luminary Micro earlier this year. The Luminary product line, at least the one they just announced, gives TI the portfolio to take on Intel and its Atom processor.

The new product line includes 29 Stellaris Cortex-M3 MCUs. The devices include unique IP for motion control applications, intelligent analog functionality, and expanded connectivity options, like 10/100 Ethernet MAC+PHY, USB Host/Device, USB On-the-Go, and Bosch 2.0 A/B CAN support.

The third vendor I mentioned is Marvell, which is potentially a sleeping giant. The company just announced new members of its ARM-based Armada family. The ICs offer an interesting peripheral mix, making it easy for developers to design a complete embedded system.

With competitors like these, it's likely that there will be no clear cut winner. But it'll be fun to watch as it unfolds.

Richard Nass is editorial director of TechInsights. He can be reached at .

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