It's hard to believe that the first microcontroller unit (MCU) became commercially available in 1974. Today, MCUs are integrated into every part of our lives. Virtually every appliance or electronic device in our homes use microcontrollers, and today’s cars use dozens of MCUs.


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In 1997, the year after Silicon Labs was founded, the market for MCUs was already robust and growing. That year alone, there were two billion 88-bit MCUs sold worldwide.


Building on early success with our DAA products, Silicon Labs began looking to diversify our products lines. The company decided to enter the multibillion-dollar, 8-bit MCU market in 2003 with the acquisition of Cygnal Integrated Products. By the end of 2004, we had more than 70 MCU products that captured, computed and communicated signals in a single system-on-a-chip (SoC). This provided customers with design flexibility, improved time-to-market and superior system performance. One of the intriguing things about MCUs was the ability to use the same MCU part in a toy or cellular phone – allowing a single product to address multiple new markets.


By 2006, our MCUs achieved an annual growth rate five times that of the industry, primarily due to the broadening of our portfolio, expansion of our sales network, and first-of-a-kind offering that fully integrated a very fast CPU and high-performance analog in an industry-leading footprint.


MCUs continued to fuel growth and in 2013, Silicon Labs acquired Energy Micro, a company that had the industry’s most energy-efficient portfolio of 32-bit microcontrollers (MCUs) based on the industry-leading ARM® Cortex™-M architecture.


Energy-Efficient Innovation

When the Cortex-M architecture was introduced in 2007, most of the industry was focused on power, in this case, measuring active and sleep current. Yet active and sleep current are measured at two random points in time, not taking into consideration what the application is doing between those two points in time.


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In April 2008, Energy Micro announced that it licensed the ARM Cortex-M3 core – and the team made the decision that their 32-bit MCUs would focus instead on “energy” – the use of power over time (energy = power x time), because they realized that future products and applications would be powered by batteries. Batteries are limited by how much energy they can store, so optimizing the use of that stored energy would be critical. This led to a more whole-system approach that created a whole new style of MCU, the EFM32, which the company launched in 2009.


The EFM32 included a highly efficient CPU that solved things faster, which resulted in much lower energy use. In addition, the peripherals – components surrounding the CPU including memory, input/output (I/O), timers, LCD controllers – were built so that the EFM32 could solve problems and interact with the world without using the CPU. This meant that instead of having the CPU “brain” do all the work, the CPU could sleep and only solve problems when the peripherals had completed their tasks.


After the acquisition of Energy Micro, this energy-efficient technology – now called Gecko Technology – is at the heart of all Silicon Labs’ powerful 32-bit ARM®-based processors. Gecko Technology provides a multitude of benefits including innovative low energy techniques, short wake-up time from energy saving modes, and a wide selection of low-energy peripherals that can operate autonomously. Pearl and Jade, the two newest members of the family, take Gecko Technology to a whole new level by providing more functionality while sleeping and even lower active current.


In addition, Energy Micro built the foundation of what is now known as Simplicity Studio.

Originally, Simplicity Studio only supported EFM32. It included breakthrough tools that made it possible to measure the energy consumption of your application without any additional tools – an industry first. Today, Simplicity Studio is the development hub for all Silicon Labs MCUs (8- and 32-bit), as well as wireless products. We give customers the ability to scale across all the MCU options and into Wireless development with a single software development platform.


The history of MCUs at Silicon Labs has been an exciting one that continues to break new ground. Energy efficiency, simplicity and connectivity are now an integral part of Silicon Labs strategy, creating smart, battery-operated nodes that empower the growing Internet of Things.


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  • But when did Cygnal start their development of 8-bit MCUs? That's just as much part of your history.