If you ever took a very introductory computer course, you probably learned about the major components of ANY computer:
- A Central Processing Unit or CPU. The part that actually performs logic and math
- Memory. Where the computer stores data and instructions
- Input and Output or I/O. How the computer moves data between its other components and the real world.
uses microelectronic fabrication techniques to shrink the CPU to a very small size; usually a single "chip."
uses the same techniques to shrink the entire computer to a single chip (or very small module.) CPU, Memory, and I/O all in a little package as small as a grain of rice. Just connect up power and it starts doing its thing; computing and talking to the world. Usually the I/O on a microcontroller is aimed at "low level" hardware like talking to individual switches and LEDs instead of keyboards, internets, and displays (like your desktop computer.) A microcontroller is just the thing you want, if you want to talk to individual switches and LEDs...