25 October 2012 by Chris Edwards
When Xmos first launched, its management pitched the Xcore as a direct replacement for hardware, something that could be used in place of an FPGA but which you programmed in regular C. But at its heart was a collection of microprocessor pipelines. The reason for the FPGA comparison was that the Xcore could be used as a compact state machine that could respond to I/O changes much more quickly than a regular microprocessor. But having shipped three different models since the company's launch, the comparison now is with more traditional microcontrollers, albeit to continue the microprocessor's 40-year encroachment on hardware territory - a trend that harks back to the Busicom calculator project that started it all.
The baseline part, said CEO Nigel Toon who joined the company earlier this year from Picochip following its acquisition by Mindspeed, is effectively "an eight-pack of microcontrollers".
"Recently there has been a big expansion into industrial applications because of the real-time nature of the architecture," said Toon. "We can build interfaces that you would not find in other microcontrollers, and support the growing requirement around functional safety."
The expansion in industrial, where the individual volumes for each project are way lower than in consumer, means a change in strategy away from the usual startup rulebook. The usual tactic is to try to get designed into a few select high-volume projects before trying to expand the customer base.
"Previously Xmos was focused on a narrow set of markets," said Toon. Now the emphasis is on getting development kits to a wider base of users, using designs similar to those employed by the hobbyist platforms such as Arduino that Freescale Semiconductor recently decided to embrace.
Toon said the company sees the off-the-shelf hardware as being an important part of growing a user base.
"The number of applications that people are looking at is expanding," said Toon. Off-the-shelf hardware is important, he added, because "I think people want to have proof points. There are fewer and fewer people doing hardware designs and this provides a way of getting beyond the proof of concept stage".
The support for low-volume projects and prototypes helps build up a user base similar to that created by Microchip for the PIC16 and Atmel for the AVR in previous years. "There is a growing community around Xmos," Toon claimed.
To make the architecture more accessible, Xmos has focused recently on building a new set of development tools, built around the Eclipse framework, and a set of off-the-shelf prototyping boards.
Co-founder and outbound-marketing manager at XMOS Ali Dixon said the Slicekits represent a "modular development kit. You plug different Slice cards into the core board. Customers can mix and match them.It's very easy to create new Slice cards. Our partners are already designing some of their own. For a number of them it's a way of monetizing their own development effort".
The SliceKit approach resembles that of Arduino Shields. Toon said the company is looking at the feasibility of supporting Arduino as well to capitalise on the growing base not just among hobbyists but industrial users. Some designers have already designed an Arduino core board, called the Xarduino for which the specifications are available online.
Toon said: "The idea of building an interposer into which you can plug Arduino Shields is quite possible."
Posted By: Chris Edwards @ 25 October 2012 04:01 PM General
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