October 1999 Industry Update

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Motherboard Update

The big story of this season is the limited number of Athlon motherboards. There have been numerous reasons why manufacturers are not rushing to make these boards, including chipset issues, limited processor availability, high cost of production (and therefore high retail prices) and lack of any real market demand. One other issue that has been brought forward is possible pressure by Intel to prevent motherboard manufacturers from actively marketing Athlon motherboards.

Most people have heard the stories of stability and power supply problems that plagued the first boards made with the AMD 750 chipset, which has in turn quelled some of the initial excitement over the processor. Because of signal integrity issues, boards using the AMD chipset must use a very expensive 6-layer PCB vs. the traditional 4-layer board. The additional costs of the PCB is reflected in the $170+ (USD) price tag for motherboard that have made it to market. Though everyone agrees that the Athlon is a superior product, the limited production capabilities of AMD has prevented manufacturers from rushing to compete because they know the market is currently very small, with approximately 1 million parts estimated to be produced by the end of the year. Low margins, high costs and limited availability is a sure way to keep manufacturers away. The good news is that manufacturers appear to have plans to begin manufacturing boards in Q1 ’00, in conjunction with the anticipated opening of AMDs Fab 30 in Dresden, which should be able to produce a very large number of Athlon processors.

Intel has not been without their own problems. In late September – just days before the official release, Intel told manufacturers to hold up their i820 based boards because of a problem with the Rambus interface. Reportedly, Compaq discovered a dataloss situation with a 3-RIMM configuration when a complex pattern of data was read and/or written, regardless of whether the 3rd RIMM was populated or not. 2-RIMM designs did not appear to suffer from this problem.

Intel’s reaction was swift and decisive – pull the chipset and stop manufacturers from shipping product. No date was given in regards to when the chipset might be re-released, and there were some whispers of a delay into Q1 ’00. More recently, rumors indicate that Intel may have found the problem even exists with 2-RIMM designs. This means that BX based boards will continue to dominate the markeplace for the near future.

Though Intel has traditionally used their market power to ‘influence’ what hardware manufacturers do, the combination of limited BX chipset availability and the uncertainty of the immediate future of the i820 has made manufacturers more dependent upon their chipset allocations from Intel. With some indications that Intel may be using their market power to sway motherboard manufacturers from making Athlon motherboards, a petition has been created to try and convince manufacturers that there *are* consumers who want these boards. As of this writing, there are already over 6,500 ‘signers’.

Motherboards sporting the VIA Apollo Pro133 chipset began appearing in August, amidst veiled threats by Intel to take manufacturers to court. Some manufacturers responded by selling their VIA based boards only in Europe and Asia, but a few did market them in the U.S. Sources have indicated that Intel tried to apply pressure by having their lawyers talk with these manufacturers, but the boards have continued to be available. It does not appear that these boards are making any huge gains in market share, but with the recent release of the Pro133A chipset this situation may change. Many board manufacturers are very keenly aware of their dependence upon Intel, and would like nothing more than to have a viable alternative (no pun intended).

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