Powering the next generation digital life

CIOL Bureau
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BANGALORE, INDIA: It won’t be long before smart metering becomes commonplace and our connected homes have washing machines and microwaves with Web interfaces that can be controlled remotely with a smartphone whenever and wherever, helping to slash energy bills and reduce our carbon footprint. Microcontrollers (MCUs), tiny low-power processors, are central to this realisation of digital life.


The MCU market is one of the most fragmented in the electronics industry today, with at least 100 different architectures from more than 20 silicon vendors available. Many of these 8 and 16-bit architectures were initiated more than 20 years ago. Consequently, most of them are now not capable to meet the increasing demands of future applications. To meet the connectivity needs of the future, the industry is now developing 32-bit MCUs that are equipped with more processing power than current 8- and 16-bit MCUs, but use considerably less power.

Embedded engineers often start from zero to develop a new application, but this can send the software development costs for the end-products through the roof. To keep costs down, improve product quality, enable component sharing across projects and future-proof technology innovations, some sectors use standardised platforms for hardware and software development. Such standardisation generally achieves wide acceptance since it delivers significant benefits to the user community and reduces costs across the value chain.

In the computer industry, before the introduction of the PC, programmers had to invent individual solutions time and again for very similar computing challenges and adopt existing software algorithms to new hardware since no peripheral or interface standards existed. Yet, generic software components that are now commonplace in the PC world are not yet available for MCUs, and the lack of programming standards limit software reuse. Consequently, MCU vendors have to offer free software frameworks for new devices that are then tailored towards specific applications. This slows down the introduction of new MCU devices and increases development costs significantly.


The PC hardware and software industry is full of standards, but in the deeply embedded MCU market the use of various proprietary architectures has prevented the introduction of software standards that would cut costs across the value chain.

As consumers’ expectations for connected end-products grow, software development for deeply embedded applications is becoming more and more expensive, increasing the need for standardisation.

Many of these next-generation MCUs, set to become the industry standard in the coming years, are based on the low-power and low-cost 32-bit ARM Cortex-M series processors. Third party IP such as this helps MCU makers bring down development costs, and using the same architecture for different markets reduces development costs significantly. Additionally, to achieve a consistent software platform and cut costs further, ARM and members of the ARM ecosystem have introduced the Cortex Microcontroller Software Interface Standard (CMSIS), which enables silicon vendors and middleware providers to create software that can be easily integrated. This collaboration between ARM and its Partners has resulted in an easy-to-use and easy-to-learn programming interface for Cortex-M processor-based devices.

There are currently 23 licensees for the Cortex-M3 and 15 for the Cortex-M0, the smallest and lowest-power MCU core in the market today. The widespread adoption of the Cortex-M processor family means that the industry is moving towards a more standardised and future-proofed approach to MCU development. This will facilitate hardware and software development, bring down the cost of devices, help reduce our carbon footprint, and drive innovation for technologies at the heart of the next-generation digital life.

(Author is is director of Microcontroller Tools at ARM)