Millions are at stake in race to build smarter and faster

The Globe and Mail

November 5, 1979

Microprocessors are getting smarter. The latest generation of devices coming out of semiconductor companies in the United States and Japan raises the level of computer power on a chip to that of a traditional minicomputer: the new devices can handle individual words containing 16 bits of data, twice as much as standard micros.

That capacity jump will open up new markets. Analysts predict that demand for the 16-bit micros will grow at more than 60 per cent a year to reach a value of $67-million (U.S.) by 1983.

Their advantages? Against the minicomputer, price. Even now, these so- called high-end microprocessors cost only about $150 each (roughly a 10th the price of a minicomputer) and are cheaper still if large numbers are ordered. Against today's standard microprocessors, their advantage is performance. The 16-bit micros are about three times faster and also easier to program than their predecessors.

The big question is whose device will dominate. The list of companies jumping into the market is growing. Intel Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif., got the ball rolling last year with its 8086, which so outclassed previous 16-bit micros (for example, those from Texas Instruments Inc. of Dallas) that it set the standard for the new league of high-end devices.

Earlier this year, Zilog made its entry with the Z8000. Recently Motorola Inc. of Schaumburg, Ill., announced its 68000. And National Semiconductor Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif., is revealing details of its 16- bit micro, the NSC 16000.

The development of each of these has involved huge investments. The market is unlikely to make them all pay. Most people in the industry reckon just one or two will capture major shares.

At present, Intel is the strongest contender. The company's head start means that its 8086 is the only 16-bit micro available in volume, and the only one well supported by microprocessor development and emulation tools. So would- be users can move quickly to design systems around it.

However, the 8086 is out performed by its competitors. Zilog's Z8000 (also made by Advanced Micro Devices) has twice as many memory units as the 8086. Moreover, these are general-purpose rather than specialized units. Also, the Z8000 can zero in on more of its individual memory units faster. All this means that it can cope flexibly with more data and more complex programs.

Motorola's 68000 is a very attractive machine - although some question the company's ability to produce it in sufficient volume. It has a more powerful set of instructions, can address more memory and boasts more software security features than either of its rivals. It is also the fastest of the micros.

The fast logic has a cost: unlike the Z8000 and 8086, which use standard memory parts, the 68000 requires expensive, high-speed memories. Nevertheless, the speed is attractive. Both Intel and Zilog are working on faster versions of their own models. Intel expects to introduce its early next year; Zilog in about 12 months' time.

As yet, the number of peripherals designed to hook up with the Motorola and Zilog 16-bit micros are few. But that will change. Zilog and Advanced Micro Designs are working furiously to bring out ones for the Z8000. Motorola claims to have peripherals for the 68000 under development, and Hitachi Ltd. of Japan is working on a memory management device for it.

And National Semiconductor? Rumor has it that its promised 16000 will be a powerful device, modelled on, and having many of the features of, Motorola's 68000. It is also said to have an internal 32-bit processing capability, which would allow it to execute in one step certain (if not all) instructions that other 16-bit micros can do only in two.

And then? The betting is that by the early 1980s, National Semiconductor could be the first company to announce a 32-bit microprocessor. The race to produce such a device has already begun.

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