Advertisement

Intel bows out

May 29, 2006

Jack Ganssle-May 29, 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. 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,  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.

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges. Contact him at jack@ganssle.com. His website is www.ganssle.com.

Intel's Response


Reader Response


ok... Who designs with an original Intel 8051 anyway???

I used to, a lot! In fact, I started my business by running over to Ollie's place, (now Nohau), and purchasing his 8051 emulator. It went something like this...

--> purchased 8051 C-compiler
--> purchased 8051 emulator
--> drafted schematics on drafting board, (supplanted later with PCB drafting tool).
--> used ABEL, (for glue logic)
----> started business.

Today, there are so many really really good variants for the 8051 that I cannot see how Intel can compete in this arena. In fact, all my clients that used my original 8051 designs migrated to the 2nd-source 8051 variants many many years ago!

- Ken Wada
Sr Embedded Systems Consultant
Aurium Technologies Inc
San Jose, CA


"Then Motorola... decided that cell phones were more interesting than processors. Now Intel is all-but-abandoning the embedded systems business."

You imply that Motorola did with the 68K and HC8 & HC12 platforms as Intel is doing with its embedded low-end platforms.

But spinning off and end-of-life are very different. Motorola's embedded platforms live on (and thrive, in fact) under the Freescale banner.

- Marc Paquette
Montreal Qc
Canada


Damn,

Makes me feel old. I cut my teeth on many of these chips. All those projects are still shipping too. I would just love to sit around and use old micros. '196KC transaction procesor, HSI's HSO's... oh, time makes us all weep.

Where's my Digikey catalog...I need to order up some good times.

- Dave May
San Jose, CA


AMD obsoleted their 80188/80186 range a couple of years ago, and I still bear the scars.

As Marc said, spinning off a business unit is quite different from letting it wither away, and the stream of product announcements from freescale suggests it is a healthy business.

- Oliver Sedlacek
Sevensoft Ltd
London, England


Is the glass half full or half empty?

I suspect there is a lot of redesign work on the horizon (or closer).

- Tim Flynn
Houston, TX


First to pervert then to abandon.

Intel did us the honor of providing segmented address space. In the process undercutting the linear space of the 68K. And now they are bailing out.

Good riddance and may they never return.

Sure x86 addressing has flattened out now. But the years of suffering inflicted by segmentation registers will not soon be forgotten. Just think back to the glory days of 186 software design: Do I want my compiler to generated Tiny, Small, Medium, Large, Huge or some perverted hybrid model.

- Walter Greene
Bellingham, MA


Motorola was originally a "radio" manufacturing company. At heart it still is a "radio" manufacturer. On the way they invented some great processors like 68HCxx and 68K etc. Time to move on I guess to newer more up to date processors. I wonder what Intel would have done if their processor architecture was not used by the most popular desktop operating system. They might still have been in the embedded market.

- Raza Hasan
Sr. Staff Engineer
Motorola Corp
Libertyville, IL


I feel a bit nostalgic because my first embedded design had an Intel c51 with external program and code memories. However, I believe that the majority of these new parts don't come from Intel and that's why we don't have to worry because we have a strong support from other companies offering us dozens of 8051 flavors...

- arcio Prestes
Porto Alegre Brazil


Agilent Technologies, spun off from HP in 1999, is still the best test equipment company.

- Chenjing Fernando
Engineer
Agilent Technologies
Everett, WA


JK micro will continue to support the x86 - Embedded Dos market for years to come. We currently obtain AMD workalike x186 processors from a Taiwanese source and are working on an alternate source for the 386ex. We'll continue support and developement as long as there's a market.

- Jim Stewart
President
JK microsystems
Davis, CA


I checked Intel's bulletin - they are discontinuing the 6 inch wafer lines. That includes many of their embedded CPUs *but* by no means all non "Pentiums and Pentium-like CPUs". For instance, as stated, the ARM based Xscale series continues. And, for that matter, so does the 960JT100 32 bit RISC CPU that I use now (which has been around for years). I suspect that any parts that have migrated to 8" wafers via die or geometry shrinks will remain until 18" wafers displace them.

Lots of good parts going away. Lots of good ones likely still around. But Intel isn't abandoning the embedded market by a long shot. And I suspect there will be other third-tier vendors who will pick up the slack for popular parts in this list.

(Thanks, Jack, for many years of insight!!)

- Jim Horn, WB9SYN/6
EE
L-3 Sonoma EO
Penngrove, CA


Mr. Greene makes an excellent point. I contend that with all the development time wasted because of that stupid segmented architecture, we could easily have landed a man on Mars.

I am real sorry to see the 196/296 go, however. Simply fantastic microcontrollers that could do anything.

- John Perretta
Sr Design Engineer
Prevailing Energy
Murrieta, CA


These days you have to have a strategy in place for EOL as early as the design phase. You have to examine the various options, from re-design to emulation, and examine what the costs might be. And you have to put a strategy in place before an EOL notice like this comes out and you are left scrambling for an option. With the implementation of the RoHS initiative, notices like this are only going to become more frequent. My company specializes in developing replacements for previously obsoleted devices -- we already have replacements for some of the AMD 186/188 parts. We are currently discussing several of these Intel parts with our customers and you'll probably see us announcing replacements for some of them soon.

- Jordon Woods
CTO
Innovasic Semiconductor
Albuquerque, NM


Like many of your readers, I have spent thousands of hours writing embedded software for Intel processors, including the 386EX, the 186, and the venerable 8051. These are great processors, but the last time I designed in a 386EX, a 25MHz device was $15-$18 at least in low quantities. This was never a low-end microcontroller.

While I will miss the 386EX, devices like the XScale based PXA255 are fine replacements. They have more features, draw less power, are significantly faster, and according to Avnet, less expensive. At a cost of less than $12 qnty 1, the 200MHz PXA255 is very distant from the ultra-high-end of the embedded market represented by devices such as the Freescale MPC8641D or the Broadcom BCM1400.

Far from bowing out of the business, Intel's embedded offerings are at least as strong as they have ever been. Instead of puzzling through myriad architectures (8051,196,i960, x86), I can now use one instruction set to target embedded Intel processors designed for communications (IXP42x), Storage (IOP3xx), and consumer/general embedded (PXA2xx) applications.

Intel, out of the embedded business? I think not.

- Jason Whitehorn
Development Manager
Microsoft
Redmond, WA

Loading comments...