Window of Opportunity Closing for AMD

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I have been following the Athlon story for quite some time with great interest. I have spoken to many manufacturers over that period, and believe I have some understanding of what the actual issues are, without falling prey to all of the marketing hype from both sides of the battle.

The fact is that AMD has done a wonderful job with the Athlon from many perspectives. They produced a superior processor in a very short time (approximately 18 months) which obviously performs as well or better than any current Intel offering. They also were able to keep the details secret enough that Intel was actually taken slightly off guard. The anticipation for this new product has been running extremely high, and still is despite the problems with motherboard availability. Though some in our instant-gratification, I-want-it-now world were frustrated by the delayed release, AMD has made good on their promises of processor availability. In short, AMD has done virtually everything in their power to ensure the success of this launch, however they don’t have the power of Intel, and therefore have been somewhat at the mercy of others.

Just as they did for the K6-2 processors, AMD designed their own reference chipset for motherboard manufacturers to use to design boards. The hope was that VIA, SiS or ALi would jump in and manufacture a chipset in time for the official processor release, just as VIA did for the K6-2. Unfortunately, this did not occur. Apparently, VIA was concentrating on several other issues they considered more important, including the PC133 SDRAM standard and Apollo Pro133 chipset, and the acquisition of Cyrix and IDT. SiS has not been a major player in the chipset market since before the Super Socket 7 platform, and ALi has rarely been at the forefront. The net result is that the only chipset available has been AMDs own.

While AMD has a solid enough reputation for their processors, chipsets have always been a bit of a weakness for them. Both VIA and ALi Super Socket 7 chipset have had some highly publicized problems, causing motherboard manufacturers to be a little leery of new chipsets specifically for AMD processors. What has made it even more problematic is that AMD is not known as a chipset manufacturer, making motherboard manufacturers even more cautious in using the AMD 750 reference chipset.

One of the major issues with the AMD chipset is that it requires the use of a 6-layer PCB. This significantly increases the cost of the motherboard, at least 50% or more. This is a major concern for motherboard manufacturers, as consumers are very price conscious, and generally don’t like to purchase items that are significantly more than what they are used to. Most motherboards today are priced around $100, so a $200 motherboard is viewed as having limited marketability.

Another problem is the cost of designing and manufacturing a new motherboard, and the expected lifespan. Today, most motherboards are considered obsolete within 3 months, which means that manufacturers have to believe that they will sell sufficient quantities to justify the expense of manufacturing them. AMD has had a history of production problems, which has caused most motherboard manufacturers to feel that having a motherboard too early would result in losses due to a lack of processors.

In the final analysis, what this release has suffered from is a combination of issues. Due to AMDs reputation (not completely undeserved), manufacturers have not been eager to produce products. Intel products do not have this problem because they do not have such a reputation (yet!). Early stability issues with the AMD chipsets have created even more concern amongst manufacturers, causing even further delays in making the products available. It certainly did not help that MicroStar attempted to cut costs on their MSI-6167 motherboard after validation, causing it to fail the follow-up validation by AMD.

It is important to recognize that motherboard manufacturers have different concerns with retail boards than with OEM boards. OEMs and systems integrators use standard configurations which can be tested and verified relatively quickly, therefore motherboards have been available to them for awhile. It usually takes at least 30 to 60 days for an OEM system to be validated for the marketplace, and we should be seeing such systems this week (according to reports). On the other hand, retail motherboards will be used with an exceptionally large array of components and therefore need much more rigorous testing and validation. AMD is being very cautious in their verification process, because they are all too aware of the PR problems that result when a motherboard fails to function properly with their processor, regardless of whose ‘fault’ it is. This has prevented manufacturers from having product available, with expected release dates still several weeks away.

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