The little chip that could

By: Bob Arnson

Abstract: It might seem that the Z80 disappeared when the x86 took over the PC CPU world, but it just went into hiding -- and is ready to make another splash as an Internet chip. Really! By Bob Arnson.

The little chip that could

It might seem that the Z80 disappeared when the x86 took over the PC CPU world, but it just went into hiding -- and is ready to make another splash as an Internet chip.

By Bob Arnson

The Z80 was my almost constant companion through puberty. I grew up with, at various times, several of Tandy's TRS-80 line of battleship gray computers. Most of the TRS-80 line used the ZiLOG Z80 processor (hence the -80 suffix). How I laughed at the slow, grainy, CGA-equipped, IBM PC and its clones. How I laughed at the very idea of wanting color monitors. How I laughed...until I decided that the best way to make a buck in the "rent-a-nerd" approach to earning money in high school was to become expert in the computers that people were actually still using in their businesses. It was time to retire my battered copy of Programming the Z80 by Rodnay Zaks.

With a lot of help from Intel, IBM, and Microsoft, ZiLOG lost the war for top PC processor. Though we wouldn't hear a "ZiLOG Inside" theme music, ZiLOG and the Z80 didn't disappear -- they just went underground. Or to be more precise, inside everything else. The Z80 is a popular processor for embedded systems. In fact, according to ZiLOG, the Z80 is the largest selling 8-bit microprocessor in history and still accounts for a sizable percentage of ZiLOG's revenue.

Now ZiLOG, celebrating its 25th anniversary, has announced the eZ80 Internet Engine, a new line of embedded microprocessors built on the Z80. The eZ80 combines the processor with digital signal processing on a single chip, making it possible to develop Internet appliances that are smaller and cheaper than currently possible with solutions that require multiple chips. Earning the subtitle "Internet Engine," the eZ80 offers a TCP/IP stack that works in less than 64K RAM, ideal for companies developing small devices with Internet connectivity. The cost? From $3 to $10, depending on exact configuration.

Not bad. But if you're developing Internet appliances, why would you use a 25-year-old 8-bit microprocessor when processors like the NEC MIPS VR4121, Hitachi SH3 and SH4, and Intel StrongARM are available with support for Microsoft's Windows CE? Or Motorola's Dragonball processor used in Palm Computing's handheld devices and the Palm OS itself? And let's not forget Linux as an embedded OS, with its support for older and therefore cheap x86 and PowerPC chips. I spoke with Daryl RuDusky, vice president of the microprocessor division at ZiLOG, for his thoughts.

"The easiest way to think about the Internet in the future is that connectivity will be as common as AC power is now," he said. "At least several major companies won't understand the Internet economy," which RuDusky defines as being able to conduct all your business -- even complicated ventures that now require lawyers and stacks of depressing legal documents -- "at the click of a mouse." "The competitive landscape will be completely redefined as we move into the Internet economy," he said. If you're developing an inexpensive embedded Internet device, "that doesn't require a 16-bit or 32-bit processor or Windows CE."

"The eZ80 is an 8-bit processor that has the performance of a 16-bit processor, including linear memory addressing of up to 16MB of addressing space," said RuDusky. The first eZ80 product begins shipping in early 2000, with subsequent products in the eZ80 line offering 16-bit and 32-bit engines.

Clearly there are user-interface-intensive Internet appliances that benefit from the rich application services available from Windows CE, Linux, and Palm OS. Also clear, however, is that the field of low-cost embedded Internet devices is set for amazing growth. If Internet connectivity -- whether wired or wireless -- becomes even close to as common as AC outlets, low-cost microprocessors will be key to making Internet devices affordable and common.

Now a privately-held company, ZiLOG has seen shrinking revenues and worldwide head count, from 1997's US$260 million and 1650 employees to 1998's US$204 million and 1200 employees. But with a market segment value estimated to grow to $44 billion by the year 2000, ZiLOG is poised to reverse those trends. According to ZiLOG's second-quarter results, although ZiLOG is still operating at a net loss, that loss is shrinking, with net sales up 17 percent over the same period last year. The sentimental rebel in me wishes ZiLOG luck. Maybe a copy of Programming the Z80 is still lurking somewhere in my parents' basement...

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