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Is Intel at end of the chipset road?

PC-133 u-turn too little too late

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Computex 2000 While Intel's power over the mighty Taiwanese motherboard market is still mighty, many third parties are asking whether the firm has a future in the chipset business.

A large number of major Taiwanese firms showed mobos using the 815e (Solano II) chipset when the Computex show opened last Monday, but enthusiasm for Intel's belated attempt to join the PC-133 party was at an all time low during the show this week.

Intel was forced to adopt the PC-133 solution at the end of last Autumn, when protests from major tier one vendors as well as third party manufacturers of mobos forced the chip giant to re-consider its position and steer away from expensive Rambus RIMMs.

But only one day after Intel introduced a wall of 815e motherboards at Computex, one of its partners, iWill, which formerly was an all-Chipzilla company until scarcities hit the supply of the BX chipset last year, announced it would not manufacture boards based on Solano II.

Support for Solano II and enthusiasm for Intel chipsets is at an all time low here. Not one mobo manufacturer we contacted during the show, from FIC to Asus to Acorp, gave Intel's u-turned PC-133 solution the thumbs up.

A representative from Abit said that while Intel had agreed to incorporate several features into the 815e, there was still concern over whether the motherboard would sell.

Taiwan is still smarting from the 820 re-call. A sales person on the FIC stand said the firm is unhappy with Intel because it had changed its mind four times on the best method of re-calling the 820 motherboards. He added that the situation was not terrible for FIC, largely because of the lack of publicity for the problem, particularly compared to Intel's now famous FDIV problem.

Another, major mobo player, which also was committed to the 820 SDRAM platform, described a farcical situation, where fortunately it had a production problem with the motherboards, and so therefore was unable to ship very many. That meant its recall problem was trifling.

That does not mean it will be unsuccessful, however. FIC, makes many motherboards for its customers, Compaq and HP, while other Taiwanese mobo firms have similar deals with IBM, amongst others. There is no doubt that the 815e will find its way into many a PC from the tier one vendors.

Nevertheless, the well-documented Intel debacles over the 810 last year, the 820, the 840 and now the 815, have led several of the Chinese firms to question whether Intel will continue in the chipset business -- particularly on the desktop.

It seems scarcely credible that Intel would withdraw from a division which assures its mind-share in motherboard land, but there's not much money in chipsets anyway, and Intel has lost mighty face here not just in terms of credibility. The cock-ups have meant loss of money for the PC industry's global powerhouse. An otherwise confident and ebullient Taiwan is unhappy with Intel.

And if AMD exits the chipset business too, which is also a strong rumour here on the Taipei streets, that will leave chip upstart Via with a clear Window of opportunity to clean up.

Chairman of Via, Wen Chi, is, after all, an ex-Intel employee also knows how the system works. ®

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