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Embedded chips swarming consumer goods

Chipmakers descend on San Francisco to hawk products such as cell phones, handhelds, washing machines, and car airbags to designers of consumer goods.

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Linux lives in new handheld
Ian LeWinter, chief strategy officer, Agenda Computing
An embedded processor free-for-all is taking place in San Francisco this week.

Chip designers such as ARM Holdings and chip manufacturers such as Hitachi are using the Embedded Systems Conference to hawk their latest hardware to product designers. The conference lasts through Friday.

"Embedded" refers to chips found in anything but a PC. The embedded market--which encompasses products ranging from cars, air conditioners, and factory automation equipment to TV set-top boxes, cell phones, and handheld computers--represents a vast opportunity for chipmakers. Most embedded chips are created to perform specific tasks while offering low-power consumption and a low price. And unlike in the PC market, clock speed is a distant priority at times.

This year at the conference, a number of chipmakers are announcing new system-on-a-chip processors. These chips are designed to do it all by combining a processor core with all the other features that a device needs to operate. These features usually include graphics, memory controllers, input/output and communications.

ARM made a splash in the system-on-a-chip arena at the show. Several chipmakers announced new system-on-a-chip processors based on ARM processor cores. Other chipmakers, including Philips Semiconductor and ST Microelectronics, renewed licensing agreements with ARM.

Philips inked a pact for an additional five years with ARM. The new agreement grants Philips and its customers the rights to use ARM9E, ARM9EJ and ARM10 cores in its Philips Nexperia chips. The newly announced chip family is designed for digital television and home-networking products.

Meanwhile, ST Microelectronics said it has extended its ARM license to include the ARM7, ARM9 and ARM10 processor cores. It will use the cores in wireless products and printers, as well as in system-on-a-chip processors for cars and digital audio.

Sharp Microelectronics announced a 200MHz system-on-a-chip processor based on the ARM922T core. The chip, dubbed LH7A400, is designed to deliver high performance for only a small amount of power consumption, the company said. Sharp is aiming the LH7A400 at color handhelds, Internet-surfing appliances, and smart phones. It will ship in the first quarter of 2002 for about $21 each in volume.

As is the nature of the embedded market, the chips may make a difference to consumers, without them ever realizing it.

"Nobody knows what microprocessor is inside their cell phone or their printer," said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at chip researcher Insight 64. Despite that fact, embedded is a large market.

"Virtually every part of your car now has a microprocessor associated with it. If you look at your average household, these things exist in your smoke detectors," Brookwood said. "All sorts of things are happening, and they're all in the embedded space."

At the conference, Hitachi announced a pair of new SuperH microcontroller chips, the SH7046F and SH7047F, aimed at such items as air conditioners, wash machines, refrigerators, factory automation equipment, automotive airbags, and anti-lock brake systems.

The chips operate at 50MHz and include 256KB of flash memory, on-chip multifunction timer pulse units, and motor management timers. The chips are designed to help equipment makers improve the control of electric motors. Doing so can lead to energy savings on devices such as air conditioners, the company said. The new chips cost $22 and $23 each in volume, respectively. Hitachi said they will ship in the fourth quarter.

While chipmakers like Hitachi are attempting to deliver more efficiency to products such as washing machines, others are working to allow consumers to communicate with such devices.

Lantronix and Motorola stepped in with products for device communications. Lantronix announced the Device Server Technology Network Interface chip, or DNSTni, which works to add Internet connectivity to devices such as light controllers, alarm systems, and home entertainment centers. Lantronix said the 96MHz chip, which supports Ethernet and wireless connections, allows products to be accessed and controlled via the Internet. Lantronix plans to release more details on the chip in the third quarter.

Motorola announced its intent to provide Bluetooth wireless networking technology for embedded applications running on Linux, VxWorks and Windows 2000 and using either its own PowerPC chips or Intel chips. The company said the move will aid device makers by offering wireless communication capabilities to equipment ranging from MRI machines to desktop printers.