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Rise not shining in chip desperation derby

Tiger, tiger burning a little dim

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Internet jockeys now routinely trot out phrases suggesting that they're at the leading edge of technology, with the pace a constant gallop towards a winning post which moves so fast that they can never cross the line. But those hip and cool cyber wallahs are living in a slightly different universe from the grumpy and curmudgeonly folk in the world of microprocessors. This branch of the industry has always had a reputation for having the roughest, toughest sales people in the computer industry. The reason for that is because the cost of making chips, without but especially with fabrication plants (fabs), is very high. Winners may make huge profits but the cost of entry, and the long history of chip failures, puts many venture capitalists and entrepreneurs right off their power breakfasts. It's so much easier to mount an Internet nag, float it, and then watch the hack sprout wings, with its share price floating away like Pegasus. Losers in microprocessor design end up in the knacker's yard. Spare a thought, then, for Silicon Valley startup Rise, caught in the crossfire as AMD, Intel, Via, Cyrix and IDT grabbed most of the chip headlines during the course of 1999. Rise, headed up by CEO David Lin, who met at CeBIT, the world's biggest computer show, in March, had high hopes for the future of his mp6 family of x86 compliant microprocessors during 1999. But last week, according to newswire Cnet, at the last minute it pulled a presentation at the Microprocessor Forum in California. According to this piece, the reason for the late withdrawal was because Rise is re-thinking its strategy due to the intense price war in the industry. There may be more of a malaise in the company than just that. We met Lin again in June, at the Taiwanese computer buyer trade fair Computex. He proudly showed us samples of the Tiger microprocessor, a Socket 370 chip, and at the same time said that the company had two design wins, due, he said, to the fact that the Rise design meant that PCs could run without fans. Just an aisle or so away from the Rise stand, a marketing executive from IDT Centaur told us that company had changed its chip strategy, and would aim its microprocessors at the information appliance market. Just a week or so later, IDT said it wanted to get out of the x86 biz. Sure enough, so it did. Lin told us at CeBIT and again at Computex that he believed that there was still a considerable market for low-end x86 chips for notebooks and desktops, and cited market figures showing the growth of the PC industry. He had, and we believe still has, some grounds for that view, despite increasingly frantic price cutting from Intel during the course of this year. One of the problems Rise has is that without heavy investment it cannot produce the volumes of processors needed to make design wins and earn a reasonable crust, particularly given that Intel has transformed its Celeron family into a very low priced processor with MIPs guts to go with it. And that also appears to be part of Rise's problem. The processors it has made do not offer ritzy, glitzy features with megahertz to match. Rather than attempt to compete directly with the giants of the x86 industry by introducing S370 chips, Rise may have done better to concentrate on the notebook and set top box business, where there is a far better chance of making wins. Where, indeed, are the design wins? And how can Rise continue without them. Our sources say Rise still has a future, although the Tiger processor is as endangered as the real creature. It is likely to speed upgrade its mp6 366 part, as well as designing better cores. Comdex may be the venue for such announcements. However, if its team of designers is up to scratch and the technology has a future and a clutch of good customers, it's likely the firm will be snapped up. Although it may be too early to write a Rise obituary, but the claws of its Tigers need to be quite a lot sharper if the firm is to cut it in what is a very feline, rather than equine, market. ®

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