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1999: Annus Horribilis for Chipzilla

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Analysis This time last year, there were a good few contenders in the x.86 market. Most, however, were looking a lot less robust than the Intel Corporation, which had spent most of the year thrashing its nearest competitor AMD and stomping over NatSemi's Cyrix brand. IDT's WinChip family had hardly come into the picture at all, while Rise was making noises, but not much more. What a difference a year makes... While Harrogate* visionary Mother Shipton predicted several centuries ago that the world might end in 1999, we've still six weeks or so to find out if she was right or wrong. But even if the world doesn't come a cropper on the 31st December 1999, with the firework show to end all squibfests, it certainly was the year that Intel's virtual hegemony on the market looked like it was straining at the seams. Intel has had a bad year. It started in February with the first delay of its i820 "Caminogate" chip set, followed soon afterwards by a huge furore over the processor serial number (PSN) by libertarians. But it was to get worse. Much worse. In June, at the Computex trade show in Taipei, practically every motherboard manufacturer was voting, with Via, for PC-133 synchronous memory to be adopted as the industry standard. Intel just said no, over and over again. Then, the next month, AMD introduced its Athlon K7 processor, and it looked like Intel might have serious competition, at last, at the high end and server end of the market. Worse, for Intel, AMD seemed at long last to be able to deliver on its production plans for the top end processor. In September, Intel found itself in a right old pickle over its decision to stick with its partner, Rambus, and push the high cost memory over PC-133, which Via and many people were still pushing as the standard. That resulted in the now famous "Seven Dramurai" announcement at the Intel Developer Forum, which looked all the more foolish because of developments in October. Try as it might, Intel could not make the i820 "Caminogate" chipset work with its own motherboards, and so it scrapped the Rambus versions it was making and put everything on hold. It looked like the end of October might do something to restore Intel's fortunes, with the introduction of its faster "Coppermine" processors. Alas, a day after it launched these chips on October 25th, internal documents were to show a severe shortage of high end and mobile versions of the processors. Now, in November, AMD has succeeded in producing a 750MHz x.86 based processor, overtaking Intel in the clock stakes. The processor serial number (PSN) row has re-emerged as an issue, and there's still a shortage of Intel i820 and i840 Rambus motherboards for its top tier customers. It has seen Compaq, Fujitsu-Siemens, IBM and quite possibly Gateway adopt AMD processors for pre-Christmas systems. And it looks quite likely that even if Intel succeeds in pulling its 800MHz Coppermine processor earlier into Q1 2000, AMD will pip it at the post again. A year later, Cyrix processors and the IDT WinChip are under the wing of Via. NatSemi is threatening Intel's up-and-coming system on a chip, the Timna, with its Geode. Rise has stopped making noises about its Tiger range, which now looks like it may end up in set top boxes. Intel will, no doubt, hope to put 1999 behind it. But competition, in the shape of both AMD and Via, is not going to disappear soon. ® * In Mother Shipton's day, Harrogate was about 14 miles away from Knaresborough, where the old witch actually had her cave. But as Intel destroyed all of our illusions about Shipton here, we hardly care. Shipton, BTW, is a North Yorkshire town about 14 miles away from Knaresborough.

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