The Wars of the Chips
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The year is 1997 and Intel, Hewlett Packard, Digital, IBM, Motorola, Microsoft, Apple, Cyrix and AMD are engaged in the first (or second, or third, or fourth- I forget), great Chip War. Digital is suing Intel for stealing Alpha technology for its Pentium Pro II and possibly upcoming Deschutes (P6), Williamette and Merced processors. Intel, for its part, is revoking technology "sharing" agreements with Digital and may no longer be a stable supplier of chips for Digital's PCs (understated). Intel's Merced will be a 0.25-micron process, 1,400 MHz, 1.5MB of on-chip cache P7 class processor. Working hand in hand with Hewlett Packard, Intel is co-developing the 64 bit Merced RISC chip. Merced is based on Very Long Instruction Word (VLIW) technology that lacks object-code compatibility with existing 80X86 architectures. The hallmark of VLIW is simplicity. A VLIW chip typically has many execution units, laid out in a neat grid, that run multiple instructions on each clock cycle. VLIW requires smart compiler software to schedule those instructions. A key component of the effort will be a VLIW software and/or hardware translator -- that will convert 80X86 code into machine code that the VLIW processor can execute (at sufficiently high speeds).

It turns out the Digital/Intel settlement may be a windfall for Digital while at the same time legitimizing the "Merced Standard"( I guess crime does pay). Digital stands to gain close to 2 billion dollars in damages, payable in discounts on the purchase of Intel chips and development /manufacturing assistance. Intel may even manufacture Alpha chips and add hooks and translation code into Merced to run Alpha applications. I wonder how Hewlett Packard feels?

IBM stolidly works on perfecting, speeding up, etc. the Power PC- the core of its UNIX /AS400/PC/NC/Java based hardware architectures. With the heavyweight (or should I say burdensome) support of Apple, the Power PC continues to languish in the personal computer arena. Perhaps NEXT/Rhapsody will inject new life into the PowerPC arena. Perhaps Oracle or Silicon Graphics will then buy the beleaguered company and transform it into a formidable Wintel competitor. Microsoft, that "annoying pest", continues to ally itself with major IBM rivals, including Digital and indirectly, Hewlett Packard (through Intel) and of course, Intel itself. It will also be interesting to see whether the release of Merced strengthens or weakens the Wintel alliance. Finally, if the alliance should weaken significantly, will Microsoft delve even more deeply into silicon development and production? Will Intel promote more open, alternative operating systems in tune with their vision of distributed computing? One thing to remember: Industry dominance today is no guarantee of dominance 18 months from now. Rapid technology change can easily transform today's juggernauts into tomorrows has-beens (and vice-versa).

Cyrix/IBM (M2) and AMD (K6) boldly proclaim, "we can do anything you can do better (and cheaper)." Currently, at least with a computer running Windows 95 and the K6- AMD can make the statement that they are as good (and much cheaper). The new Cyrix M2 chip looks even faster than the AMD K6 chip (running Windows 95). Hoping that Intel "prematurely" leaves the 80X86 arena, Cyrix and AMD will continue to exploit this architecture. Offering little vision for the future, these two chip makers are content to engage, and occasionally win a war of one-upmanship with Intel and it allies while hopefully one day making a profit. Cyrix, with National Semiconductor merger, may forge a new vision and direction. And of course, Intel's enemies are AMD's and Cyrix's friends. Intel, for its part, reluctant to lose its 80X86 mainstay, will do its best to evolve more advanced (and much faster and probably expensive) CPU implementations /architectures while keeping the current 80X86 user base satisfied. Along the way- a few protracted legal battles with AMD and Cyrix; strong arm policies with the computer press; and Slot 1/2-might help keep the "usurpers" in their lowly place. To keep things interesting- Cyrix, AMD and possibly Intel will soon have a new challenge in the 80X86 arena. Centaur Technology's soon to be released IDT-C6 RISC based chip will offer Pentium 200MMX performance (across "commonly" used applications) at one-half the cost of a comparable Intel processor, less power consumption and a much simper design. Finally, I am sure Intel will do its best to prevent "clone" chip makers from building Merced takeoffs. CEO Andy Grove's guide line: The paranoid will survive... Intel inside.

And then of course there is Microsoft- well positioned as usual and attempting to make Windows NT 4/5 the operating system for everyone. An operating system that will fully replace legacy systems, handle huge volumes of commercial transactions, have 8+ processor SMP/Cluster support, offer strong security, excellent portability, powerful distributed relational database /object /management functions, professional graphics handling and run on your personal desktop as a gateway to the New (and very insecure) world of the Internet. If the last sentence seems absurd (and long!)- so be it. Like the Emperor's new cloths- no one wants to tell the millionaires at Microsoft that the paradigm their New Technology (NT) rests on is rapidly shifting. The network is the computer? The Internet is the network? The Internet is the computer and what technology is designed to securely, simply and powerfully integrate with the Internet? NOT Windows NT (at least in its' current incarnation). Not withstanding a billion dollars of NT R&D, Microsoft would do well to remember the lesson of the dinosaurs-bigger is not always better.

 

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