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8-BIT MCU Relevancy in 2011
Industry speculation continually exists across many past and present technologies. When looking at the evolution of microcontrollers, it is easy to wonder if and how long they will be relevant in such a fast-paced world that’s speeding down the technology highway.
Certainly in some technology arenas, applications are ramping quickly into more and more sophisticated levels in which ARM and Atom are leading as powerful solutions and enjoying big buzz. Many in the industry would agree that as some products evolve into more richly-featured solutions, they are indeed the right solutions. But where does that leave the 8-bit micros that we all grew up on? Are they a thing of the past? Are they now just too archaic to have any real technical worth? Seemingly, there are plenty who believe 8-bits are now good for only the most basic functions, and that the future will have little use for them.
Others may see this a bit differently – that although today’s fast pace has created a huge demand for better and more powerful microcontrollers, there’s also the larger arena that comprises many fast-growing technologies – technologies which compel the growing demand for many more 8-bits. Let’s just take one example in the energy management segment – although it’s certainly not a new arena or topic – and that’s the new emerging products which have recently gained far more traction in the marketplace. The change has resulted in broader awareness, justification for adoption, and far faster demand for more energy solutions than ever before. For the average person opening their electricity bill, the very thought of saving $30–$100 a month on home power consumption is a real wake-up call. When looking at it in terms of the smart home, intelligent appliances, or expansion of the smart grid, one can quickly see where there are tons of new product opportunities in which a certain level of smarts is needed to accomplish the energy and money-saving functions we demand.
One might propose that as all of these solutions accelerate and expand across the globe, there will be several levels of complexities within each model. For instance, lighting control is quickly becoming one of the fastest areas in which people and businesses see instant return on their investments. Parking structures, factories, schools, commercial and federal buildings consume huge amounts of power, and it doesn’t matter if anyone is present or not. Tomorrow’s solutions include relatively simple motion sensors along with lighting systems that are equipped with some form of unique embedded intelligence. Now, all of the sudden, a good deal of energy savings is possible and quite measurable. It seems that these systems solutions have several elements that will require some level of microcontroller management to work in harmony together. The system master or controlling device may well be a 32-bit controller, while the individual 8-bit end points that still beg for some intelligence will have a simpler function. When working as combined elements, the result is exactly what needs to be accomplished; i.e., when no one is around, the lights simply dim or shut off until someone reenters the area. Certainly, 32-bit or even 16-bit MCUs are not needed for end points such as wall plugs, switches, smart ballasts, even certain lighting fixtures. When examining deployment ratios, it is apparent that there are many more end points in many of these designs, and thus a large demand for our beloved 8-bit microcontrollers. They are not gone, and they most certainly are not forgotten!
Just one example of energy management, but one that’s easy to discern as the energy-hungry world looks for solutions, is that 8-bit MCUs are evolving alongside the unique embedded designs that are well-suited for the energy-saving tasks at hand – not overly so, but rather as just the right mix of peripherals and functionality for many of these new applications. The microcontroller market is growing, and although there are more types of solutions, my prediction is that 8-bit microcontrollers will be with us for a very long time!