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Does ARM's launch of the M0+ core spell the end for 8bit mcus?

Slowly, the embedded systems market has been moving away from its reliance upon 8bit microcontrollers and towards the brave new world of 32bit processing. It's something that has been going on for many years – one of the first 32bit processors to be launched was the Motorola 68000 back in 1979; even though Motorola positioned it as a 16bit part.

There have been many reasons why the transition has proceeded with glacial pace, but one of the more compelling has been cost – 8bit mcus have, until recently, offered major cost savings over their more capable big brothers.

But the recent launch by ARM of the Cortex-M0+ core has all the makings of a watershed. Already adopted by Freescale and NXP in new mcu ranges, the M0+ core promises devices that are more capable, more flexible and – above all – less expensive than today's 8bit parts.

What might that mean for the embedded systems world? Consider Freescale as an example. More than half of its microcontroller revenues are generated by sales of 8bit parts. Freescale knows that many of its customers could justify the use of 32bit processing on a performance basis, but won't move because of the price.

One Freescale executive believes that 8bit processing now makes 'no sense' and, with the launch of the M0+ core, it should contemplate an ARM only portfolio – effectively marking the end of 8bit and 16bit processing. From a technology perspective, says the Freescale exec, there's a new future.

With a nod to upgrades, it's likely that Freescale's Kinetis-L family – its new M0+ based range – will be available in 8bit friendly packages; perhaps even an so8 option. Pin compability will be an attraction, even if Kinetis-L parts need to be programmed in C, rather than assembler.

Is it the end of 8bit? Not quite yet, but the obituaries are being written.

Graham Pitcher

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