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National Semi offers computer-on-a-chip

National Semiconductor launches the Geode family of chips, which integrates most of the electronic functions needed for an information appliance such as a TV set-top box.

National Semiconductor released a computer-on-a-chip today, a successor to its Intel-compatible processor.

National Semiconductor launched the Geode family of chips today, which integrates most of the electronic functions needed for an information appliance such as a TV set-top box.

Cyrix, which National acquired--then sold--has been shipping, since 1997, an Intel-compatible chip called the MediaGX which integrates a number of core electronic features into one chip including the main processor, graphics, and audio. This had been used widely by PC makers such as Compaq, Packard-Bell-NEC, and Emachines in low-cost boxes often selling for below $600.

But in May of this year, National said it was exiting the market for low-cost PC processors to concentrate on information appliances. At that time, it said it would come out with a computer-on-a-chip based on the Intel architecture while it unloads its higher-end chip line called the MII. The company then sold its Cyrix division to Via. (See related article.)

In the announcement today, National said its first design, the Geode SC1400, is designed for an Internet-centric TV set-top box equipped for digital video.

"This gets their foot in the door. This is the first product in an entire generation of products specifically designed for information appliances," said Dean McCarron, an analyst and principal at Mercury Research. This is important, he said, because this market is young and not yet established.

But other analysts weren't so kind. "The strategy doesn't make sense," said Ashok Kumar, an analyst at US Bancorp Piper Jaffray. He claims that general purpose processors such as Intel's Pentium chips are powerful enough today to run most tasks without a lot of specially integrated circuits.

The company added that it is targeting several market segments including so-called "thin clients," computers that rely on powerful servers for processing power. This includes Windows-based terminals from companies like Wyse Technology and Acer. Another target market is what National calls "personal access devices" which are typically handheld computers.

"For future versions of the chip, manufacturers can specify the configurations they require, drawing on National's library of reusable intellectual-property building blocks," the company said in a statement.

Set-top boxes using Geode technology are expected to be on the market by the summer of 2000, the company added.

International Data Corporation (IDC) has said in the past that the information appliance market will expand over the next five years to worldwide shipments of about 65 million units in 2003.

National executives claim the time is right to move out of PCs into the emerging information device market. "The PC with all its complexity doesn't cut it anymore," said Steve Tobak, a vice president at National. The theme at PC conferences is "always the same thing: do away with complexity." Devices based on the National chip will be simple, easy-to-use appliances, he said.

National said it expects Acer, America Online, China's Legend Group, Philips, and Wyse to adopt the chip for products.

The Geode architecture combines the processor, ancillary system functions, graphics, MPEG video playback, audio, TV input-output, and peripheral device input-output.

The making of an integrated chip
Chip integration presents an opportunity and a curse for chip developers. On one hand, by integrating more functions onto a single piece of silicon, designers can cut overall device costs. Devices can also get smaller because of fewer parts and smaller circuit boards.

On the other hand, integration also brings its own form of obsolescence. The different components that go into the chip progress at different rates. Development in graphics technology, for instance, moves faster than development with microprocessors. Therefore, a box with an integrated chip will have slower graphics than one using separate components, various analysts have said.

But Mercury Research's McCarron said that this doesn't really matter in the appliance market. "Nobody cares what's inside a cable [TV] box." Unlike PCs, which historically have technology upgraded two or three times a year, information appliances use the same technology for a year or longer.

But some analysts say that squeezing all these parts onto a piece of silicon creates more design and manufacturing headaches. Cyrix once lost a Compaq PC design because it could not manufacture enough MediaGX chips. Intel, for example, is currently grappling with a few bugs in its "Whitney" chipset that combines graphics with computer system functions.

McCarron takes issue with this too, however. He said that it is relatively less complicated for National to make these chips because they don't need to run at high speeds and therefore don't require the latest manufacturing processes which Intel must use to make its 550-MHz Pentium III processors. This also keeps down manufacturing costs, he said. Analysts estimate that these chips will be priced at the $50 level or lower.

Intel, long a critic of integration, will announce an integrated microprocessor that combines a microprocessor, graphics, and a Rambus memory controller in the third quarter of 2000 called "Timna." AMD executives have said that they are also looking at an integrated processor.