Processor history: The road to the 6502 nostalgia

PragmatIC Semiconductor’s recent announcement about developing a flexible version of the 6502 processor takes tech history buffs on the road to nostalgia. The 8-bit processor and its variants became the brains of seminal computers like the Apple II, Commodore PET, Commodore 64, and BBC Micro and kickstarted the personal computing revolution in the 1970s.

Moreover, the 6502 processor powered the pioneering gaming platforms such as Nintendo Entertainment System and Atari 2600. A lesser-known fact about this iconic chip is how it brought down the price of processors by selling 6502 at $25 when Intel’s 8080 and Motorola’s 6800 were priced at nearly $200.

The 6502 microprocessor from MOS Technology
The 6502 microprocessor from MOS Technology.

In a classical semiconductor era innovation twist, Chuck Peddle, a lead designer at Motorola’s 6800 processor team, wanted to develop a simplified, less expensive, and faster processor version. Peddle believed that a cheaper processor could be sold to a much larger market of embedded systems. The next turn in this silicon saga is entirely predictable: Peddle and some other members of the original 6800 design team began working on an 8-bit processor with minimal instruction set.

This team of 17 processor designers and layout experts eventually became part of MOS Technology in 1974; in a year, they were able to produce a faster and cheaper processor known to the world as 6502. And then came the anticlimax. Soon after the 6502 launch, Commodore acquired MOS Technology and started selling processors and licenses to other manufacturers.

MOS Technology production building
MOS Technology production building.

That, once more, laid the ground for another landmark innovation in the semiconductor industry’s early history. The licensing of microprocessor intellectual property (IP) cores inspired Acorn, the company that produced the BBC Micro personal computers. Acorn engineers created the wildly popular ARMxx series of microprocessors, which eventually led to the formation of processor IP giant Arm.

PragmatIC's flexible 6502 was laid out and manufactured in less than two weeks
PragmatIC’s flexible 6502 was laid out and manufactured in less than two weeks.(Source: PragmatIC).

Fast forward to 2021, PragmatIC Semiconductor claims to have laid out and manufactured a flexible version of the 6502 processor in less than two weeks by using its FlexIC Foundry, a custom chip design service. The company has also taped out a second iteration to optimize pinout, footprint, and speed.

Long story short, the iconic 6502 processor is still alive and well, serving embedded applications with production volume in millions of units.


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