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Is 8-bit Dead?

Engineers have been heralding the death of 8-bit microcontrollers for years. First 16-bit was supposed set to be it’s executioner then, 32 bit then surely 64 bit would have landed the coup-de-grace of 8 bit. But somehow it has stuck around. For small devices like digital counters, thermometers, and other sensors 8 bit chips like AVR or PIC provide a cheap and easy solution for controlling digital IO. 8 bit has also carved out a niche in the IOT market, whereas the 16 bit and 32 bit processors are used for more complex tasks like mesh networking

8-bits will never die for the reasons of ease of use, cost of entry, and low power. Large industries (automotive, consumer appliances) are cost driven. No automotive vendor will use 32-bit platform for simple CAN node endpoint or window lifting unit or anything else that I was working with an 8-bit micro. The bottom line is that MCU suppliers will set their prices based on the amount of silicone they need to manufacture the micro, period. This will never go lower than 8-bit unit.

Consider Microchip. This is a company which took over a failed processor line that had been poorly marketed by General Instruments. By any objective means the low-end PIC processors are pretty much brain-dead parts. They have limited instruction sets with small address spaces. Everyone knows you can’t write code in less than 640K of memory, so real programmers will use an Atom over a PIC any day.

But PICs thrive. Today Microchip has over 700 different microcontrollers which represent 80% of their business. Though they have a 32 bit line these represent a relatively small section of their market. Mostly they sell 8 and 16 bit devices. And sell these they do, in Sagan-like numbers. Over 6 billion PICs have hit the streets to date.

With the economy in the dumpster the semiconductor vendors are suffering along with the rest of the world. But not Microchip. They announced record sales the last quarter, putting them on track to do $1.5 billion in yearly sales. The quarter was up 68% over the same period last year. Profits, too, improved, and the dividend was increased.

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