December 1999 Industry Update

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Motherboard Update

All of the motherboard manufacturers in attendance at Comdex had 820 based boards, but some were showing obviously older designs (those with 2 RIMM and 2 DIMM slots, or even 3RIMM slots). There were a few manufacturers who showed designs with 4-DIMM slots, though they all indicated they were ‘working on these designs’. This was accomplished by using two MTH (Memory Transfer Hubs) on the boards.

The big news, at least from our perspective, was the fact that almost every major manufacturer had an Athlon motherboard on display. This included MSI, Biostar, Gigabyte, FIC, Aopen and Soyo. Curiously, ASUS was conspicuously absent from this year’s show – perhaps trying to keep a low profile after the K7M fiasco. Normally, one would expect that these manufacturers would be quite happy to discuss their Athlon boards, but most preferred to talk about the i820 based boards – and for a very good reason, which we will discuss below.

Though there were several i810 chipset based boards being shown, several manufacturers indicated that these were not selling as well as they had planned. Socket 7 based boards have been all but relegated to the low-end desktop and mobile market. In fact, the majority of motherboards being sold by these manufacturers are i440BX based boards, and they anticipate this to continue into Q1 ’00. There have been some indications that the BX chipset shortage may be ending, as manufacturers have built all of their ‘holiday’ boards, and are starting to move towards i820 chipsets.

Virtually every motherboard manufacturer told us that they expect the DIY market to slow down in the U.S., while increasing dramatically in Asia and Europe. Coupled with the focus on chipset integration, we will be seeing more integrated solutions for the U.S. market this year. Though manufacturers may make the high-end boards, they may not make them available in the U.S. unless there is a lot of market pressure to do so.

A Special Note about Athlon Boards

Anyone reading this who has not yet heard the accusations of Intel pressuring motherboard manufacturers in regards to the Slot-A boards has obviously been on a long vacation. Almost every manufacturer told us that this pressure has indeed been applied – however, contrary to popular belief it appears that Intel has not been applying this pressure to prevent the boards from being manufactured. Instead, the focus has been all about marketing. This is why manufacturers have made the boards, but not marketed them. Apparently, the way this is handled is that Intel suggests that a manufacturer who markets a competitors product over an Intel product may not be considered a ‘Tier 1’ customer. Since Tier 1 customers get their chipset allocations first, this might be a problem when certain chipset are in short supply.

Inside sources told us that Intel was talking with most of the manufacturers at Comdex, encouraging them to focus primarily upon their i820 boards. This was obviously fairly successful, as every manufacturer we visited made sure to show us their i820 solutions first, and only talked about their Slot-A boards when we specifically asked. We also heard that Intel had suggested to FIC that the lawsuit might be settled more amicably if there was less of a push on Athlon boards, and more of a focus on i820 boards.

One manufacturer we spoke with indicated that anti-trust proceedings, even if successful, would not be of any help because of the amount of time necessary for these suits to wend their way through the courts. With most manufacturers getting 90% or more of their revenues from Intel chipsets (primarily the BX), this is a serious issue. However, even more of a concern, according to this manufacturer, is that in the OEM market the only real advantage Taiwanese manufacturers have over Intel is price. If Intel were to decide that there was too much support for competitors, they just might lower their prices to OEMs and put many of the smaller board manufacturers out of business, and seriously impact even the larger ones.

Interestingly, the news from Japan is that Athlon sales are booming, particularly in the DIY/retail market. Apparently over 100,000 Athlons have been sold in Japan alone since August. We have also heard that ASUS did not ship as many boards as expected in November, and may have been as much as 20% below October shipments. We wonder whether this is partly due to the fallout in regards to their non-committal stance on the K7M.

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