The System-On-A-Chip, MicroSystems Computer Industry
Gordon Bell, Microsoft Corp.

The inevitability of complete, computer systems-on-a-chip will create the MicroSystems industry. By 1999, 32 MByte memory chips are predicted. So by 2002 we would expect a PC-on-a-chip with: at least 32 Mbytes, video and audio I/O, built-in speech recognition, and industry standard busses for mass storage, LAN, and communication. Technology will stimulate a new computer industry for building applications specific computers that require partnerships among, system customers, chip fabricators, ECAD suppliers, intellectual property (IP) owners, and systems builders.

The volume of this new MicroSystem industry will be huge -- at least two order of magnitude more units than the PC industry. For every PC, there will be thousands of other kinds of systems built around a single chip computer architecture, with its interconnection bus on chip, and that is complete with processor, memory hierarchy, i/o (including speech), firmware, and platform software. Powerful processors will enable firmware to replace hardware.

SGI (MIPS) supplies the key technology for Nintendo and Sony to build games, and WebTV to build an Internet access set top. Netscape's Navio licenses software to build Internet consumer access devices including phones, games, and television sets to attempt to replace PCs. (Partners included IBM, NEC, Nintendo, Oracle, Sega, and Sony.) SUN's Microelectronics division is designing and licensing special processors for the Java language and environment. Acorn licenses its ARM processor. Oracle is licensing its network computer to sell server software. Microsoft has various alliances for designing pocket and set top computers.

The emerging MicroSystem industry will consist of:

Like previous computer generations stemming from Moore's Law, a MicroSystem will most likely have a common architecture consisting of: Instruction Set Architecture (ISA) such as the 8088, MIPS, or ARM; a physical or bus interconnect that is wholly on the chip and used to interconnect processor memory and a variety of i/o interfaces (disk, ethernet, audio,…); and software to support real time and end use applications. As in the past, common architectures are essential to support the myriad of new chips economically.

Will this new industry just be an evolution of custom microcontroller and microprocessor suppliers, or a new structure like that that created the minicomputer, PC, and workstation systems industries? Will computer companies make the transition to MicroSystems companies or will they just be IP players? Who will be the MicroSystem companies? What's the role for software companies?