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AMD loose cannon in Via-Intel deal

P5, P6 settled. AMD unsettled?

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Analysis Intel's CEO, Craig Barrett, was unequivocal about his firm's continued interest in the chipset market when he spoke to journalists in Sweden a fortnight ago.

That, he said, would undermine confidence in the marketplace, and would not be something Intel would ever contemplate.

Still, there's chipset business and there's chipset business. While a year is as a day in the eye of the lord, a year in the microprocessor business is like a century everywhere else.

Only one year back, AMD was trundling around at the $16 mark, Intel was setting the pricing rules and Via was still pluckily pushing the PC-133 standard.

The agreement between Intel and Via to settle most of its impending lawsuit last week acknowledges how the sand has shifted in the marketplace, but also poses several questions about the future of this lucrative corner of the market.

Many of Intel's Taiwanese customers began to express dissatisfaction over its chipset plans a year last month -- first by foisting on them the 810 solution -- which did not really cut the mustard, secondly by appearing hell-bent on promoting Ramboost technology, and thirdly by announcing plans to dump the popular BX chipset.

The BX chipset's popularity was in no doubt, but Intel supply problems towards and during the end of last year, compounded by the availability of cheap and cheerful alternatives from Via, pushed many mobo makers away from Intel and inexorably towards AMD and its Athlon alternative.

For months, the Taiwanese press has been speculating on whether Via is set to strike a deal with Rambus, particularly given that the price of RIMMs has sunk over the last three months, while the price of SDRAM has risen. Via has kept silent on its plans, and nor could we extract any details about how the chipset division would deal with the Pentium 4 (Willamette) and the Pentium 4.79, which is slated for Q2 in the next millennium.

As one reader pointed out to us the day after the Via-Intel settlement, there is more to this deal than meets the eye.

The settlement gives Intel some money and some royalties for some chipset technology related to P5 and P6 technology, but litigation over non-Intel technology still appears to stand.

Specifically -- and both Intel and Via's press releases suffer from non-specificity on this point -- technology which the latter company uses in its KX and KT-133 chipsets, and which supports the AMD microprocessor, still appears to be the subject of pleadings from m'learned friends.

You would not guess this from the press releases both Intel and Via issued. But guessing anything from press releases is always difficult, as they are mainly concerned with glossing a situation rather than explaining one.

Further, readers may recall that several Taiwanese mobo manufacturers we talked to at Computex told us that AMD had, quite clearly, asked them to use the Via solution for chipsets, rather than use AMD chipsets for Athlon support.

That led The Register, at the time, to speculate that AMD would exit the chipset market and also that Intel didn't really have its heart in that market as much as it had before, especially given the fact that it had suffered a sever bruising over the i820 "Caminogate" debacle.

Certainly, it helps any possible anti-trust pleadings that there are viable x86 competitors to Chipzilla (Intel) in the shape of Chimpzilla (AMD) and Marmosetzilla (Via). But while the licensing of certain, unnamed patents to Via in the shape of P5 and P6 Intel technology could and probably will be helpful for the overall market, there are still plenty of unexplained issues to be resolved.

Those take the shape of Via's interest in the CPU business. We were told, when we were in Taiwan, that Via intends to spin off its CPU business at some stage in the future. Via, also, priced its Cyrix III at what many observers think is a price too far for the market it aims at. Lastly (we think it's lastly, but this is very complicated), the lack of DDR chipsets at Computex, apart from ALi's technology demo, may be more significant than first appeared.

We understand that DDR chipsets will be shown at the Platform conference in San Jose in just over a week's time. We know from sight of Intel roadmaps that DDR (particularly ServerWorks-Reliance technology) is fundamental to its server strategy next year. Micron has Samurai DDR chipsets under its wing, and has had since February this year.

Indeed, if you take a glance at AMD Zone, you will see Micron has changed its mind about Samurai and will start releasing chipsets in volume for both Intel and AMD processors, possibly towards the end of this year.

If, and it is a big if, Rambus finally persuades Via to intro mobos based on its RDRAM technology, that would certainly bring down the prices of RIMMs with a bump, wouldn't it? Then we could all settle back, utter a collective sigh of relief, and consign the DDR technology to the server world, where the techies think it's just fine.

After all, AMD has already a licence with Rambus, hasn't it? Intel would be happy it had fulfilled its obligations to Rambus, and we could look forward to a future where we didn't have to write about JEDEC, Ramboost, plucky little Via or even the seven Dramurai. Whew... ®

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