Zilog enters the 16-bit market. Again.

My first exposure to microprocessors came through the use of the Zilog Z80 chip. It was hard to do any work with small computers in the late 1970s and NOT use the eight-bit Z80; they were relative cheap, easy to build circuits with, and simple to program. Many hardware and software engineers, including myself, cut our teeth on Z80 assembly. Early microcomputers, like the Radio Shack TRS/80 and numerous CP/M boxes, used the Z80 before the IBM PC came out and redefined the landscape around Intel’s x86 family.

But Zilog, what have you done for us lately? Not much, given the company’s recent financial woes — millions of dollars of losses every quarter. While the company still sells variations on its newer eight-bit Z8 microprocessor, it also offers other stuff like infrared controllers. Even so, the breadwinner is the Z8, which includes onboard flash memory, perfect for embedded microcontroller applications.

Zilog has lived in an eight-bit world for 30 years. Yes, the company has attempted to break out of the eight-bit box before, such as with the short-lived 16-bit Z280 and 32-bit Z380 processors from the early 90s. But they just didn’t go anywhere.

Flash forward (so to speak) to 2006. One month ago, the company dumped its chairman/CEO, Jim Thorburn, who had been in place for five years, appointing an interium CEO while beginning a search for a permanent replacement. And now it has released a new 16-bit platform, called ZNEO.

ZNEO looks like an interesting chip, and a possible upward migration path from the Z8 microcontroller. It has fast zero-wait-state internal flash memory, in a variety of sizes ranging from 32KB up to 128KB: that’s a lot of space in the embedded market. Plus, it has a math engine that can do 8, 18, and 32-bit operations.

Clearly, the ZNEO project is going to be critical for Zilog, as the firm struggles to survive. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation: Zilog needs new customers and design wins in order to get its finances in order. But will embedded developers, who perhaps rely upon the company as a provider of tried-and-tested commonity chips, want to base their future products on an unproven platform from an trouble supplier? Time alone will tell, but I have my doubts.

Z Trek Copyright (c) Alan Zeichick