PC133 or Bust!

PC133, or Bust! … What could have been the rallying cry for VIA Technologies and their partners in the PC133 initiative, may now be the two alternatives available to Intel. As recently as June, Intel was steadfast in their conviction that D-RDRAM was the only viable memory architecture for the future and that PC133 SDRAM would not appear on their roadmap. On Monday (7/19/99), however, the story apparently changed, according to This news report

Reports were widely circulated on Monday that indicated manufacturers were not willing to ramp up their D-RDRAM production as quickly as Intel had hoped, and that Intel was ‘examining’ the possibility of putting PC133 SDRAM support into their roadmap by early next year. The official story from Intel blamed low DRAM prices, however this really appears to be only part of the reason.

As reported in an earlier news report (see Rambus On The Ropes?) there have been numerous problems with the i820 chipset (Intels first to support D-RDRAM) as well as discontent amongst memory manufacturers. In addition, while Intel and Rambus have been insisting that there will only be a 10% to 15% cost difference, manufacturers are telling a different story. The cost of test equipment, the increased die size and royalty payments all add up to at least a 100% price differential initially – quite a steep premium, especially when Intel offers no alternative for the manufacturer or user!

Intel Blinks…

On Feb 23 of this year, VIA announced the formation of a coalition of manufacturers, including Micron, Samsung and NEC, who would develop and promote a PC133 memory standard. The very next day, Intel announced that the i820 chipset (code named Camino), which would support *only* D-RDRAM, was being pushed back from June to September, citing problems in getting the chips to run at 800MHz. Despite this development, Intel insisted that there was no other viable alternative and D-RDRAM implementation would proceed as planned.

Even as industry support began wavering, and the PC133 initiative gained momentum, Intel continued to make claims that PC133 was *not* a viable alternative to D-RDRAM, and did not have the infrastructure to succeed in the marketplace. In the meantime, VIA was putting on roadshows to promote both PC133 and PC266 (double data rate PC133 SDRAM), including providing a glimpse of their upcoming Apollo Pro 133 chipset. Intel was apparently not amused, and reportedly warned VIA against introducing a 133MHz capable chipset before Intel did.

As pressure continued to mount Intel eventually declared that they actually would support PC100 SDRAM on the i820 chipset, but not PC133. Intel finally took direct action in June by revoking VIAs license to manufacture Slot 1 chipsets, though they also claimed that PC133 support would be possible if the market demanded it (see this news report for more information). VIA then responded by purchasing Cyrix and announcing their intention to continue to develop the Apollo Pro133 chipset through cross licensing agreements.

Intel continued to claim that D-RDRAM would be introduced in September, and that PC133 would not be supported – until Monday, that is. For the first time Intel reportedly acknowledged that the marketplace may not be ready for D-RDRAM, and PC133 has widespread acceptance already. They also seemed to indicate that D-RDRAM may be delayed another quarter. On the same day, VIA officially announced the availablility of the Apollo Pro133 chipset, which several motherboard manufacturers have already announced product for.

Follow the Leader

Despite the posturing, it appears that Intel may be losing some of their market leadership. Delays in processors have been common over the past several years, allowing AMD to finally catch up with their soon to be released Athlon processor. Most recently, problems with the i810 and i820 chipsets have plagued Intel, causing some to wonder if the marketing department has been in control of the company for too long.

During the past two years, Intel has seen a decline in market share for both microprocessors and motherboard chipsets – primarily due to competition from VIA and AMD at the low-end. Now the battle is being taken to a higher level as Intels mid-range and high-end markets are under attack from these competitors. The indications are that the Athlon processor will give AMD the top spot on the x86 performance chart, even if only for a short time. At the same time the Apollo Pro 133 may have given VIA the lead in chipset performance, with another chipset in the works to support the Athlon processor.

One thing is certain, tough competition is good for the marketplace. For too long Intel has controlled the pace of technology in the PC hardware industry. This is not to say that it has been all bad, as Intel brought stability and compatibility to the industry just when it appeared to be self-destructing, however most recently this control has seemed to become somewhat stifling. Companies such as VIA and AMD are providing some much needed new leadership, and may very well be the stimulus that Intel needs to once again get back on track. On the other hand, if Intel continues with their current roadmap, they may find themselves rushing to follow the lead set by their more aggressive competitors.

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