24th > October > 1999 Archive

The Register breaking news

Strange whiff surrounds Intel's great i820 shambles

Dell, Samsung and Intel have their own related reasons for the delay of the i820 Camino chipset, it has emerged. Technical mistakes that were announced just a few days before the release of the i820 and Intel's own Vancouver motherboard are more to do with the chip giant's inability to design working circuit boards and with its relationship with Dell and Samsung, according to well placed sources close to the companies' plans. The problem now seems to boil down to this. The i820 chipset actually works fine. But Dell only uses Intel motherboards in its desktops and technical mistakes made by Chipzilla led to a last minute panic. The Intel mistake is confined only to its motherboards and not to third parties, but the essence of the allegation is that as a result, Santa Clara pressed the stop button on all mobos using the i820 chipset, while it attempted to fix its own problem, calling all third party mobos in for qualification. Intel had to stop the programme for another reason. It, and its major customers including Dell, would look very silly if their Vancouver solution failed to work while the i820 chipset hummed away very nicely on third party motherboards equipped with bright and shiny Coppermine .18 micron chips. There is another complication. Many readers have pointed out that buying Rambus RIMMs is not easy, and that if you can get hold of them, you have to pay quite a lot of money. Our information is that this situation is compounded by the fact that Samsung, which has received large investment from Intel, and is a senior member of the Seven Dramurai, also has its own technical problems with Rambus. Other manufacturers of the RIMMs, even if they are members of this select club, do not have these problems. In the short term, Intel has taken the extraordinary step of advising its smaller PC customers to use either the Via chipset or to use the BX chipset. However, several of these smaller manufacturers have pointed out that the Via chipset does not really fit the bill, while BX chipsets, surprise surprise, still seem to be in terribly short supply. Further, several of these two tier and three tier manufacturers have pointed out to us the strange nature of this advice, which came only a week after Intel screwed up. Had Intel, which is taking legal action against Via anyway, qualified mobos using the chipset before they advised their loyal customers to try it out? So smaller PC companies, as well as the third party motherboard manufacturers, just have to wait until Intel cleans out its own Augean Stables. That will be towards the middle or end of next month, and as we have pointed out earlier, will not leave time for children to get their i820 mobo toys in their Christmas stockings. When AMD was ramping up its K7-Athlon hype machine earlier this year, many speculated that Dell would dabble in the non-Intel waters and try the processor out. But that was always unlikely, given the preferential rates Dell gets from Intel for its processors. Within the industry, Dell is often jokingly described as an Intel distributor. It subscribes wholeheartedly to the Intel Inside campaign and it uses Intel motherboards in its successful range of PCs. Tomorrow, Intel releases its i840 workstation chipset (Carmel), described rather nicely by one online news service as Caramel, perhaps because it hits the sweet spot. But, as the Great Satan of Chips rolls out its Coppermine processors to the world+dog, it is only now become possible to piece together the i820 Camino fiasco and place it in context with the events of the last two months. Placed in context, this is a far greater debacle than the FDIV bug which forced Intel to scrap a heap of Pentiums a while back. The trouble is, that made for easy headlines such as Pentium has a bug, while this i820 story is complex and bound up with Intel's investments in Rambus Ink, Samsung and its relationships with other large memory manufacturers worldwide. We will put these questions to the parties concerned during the course of this coming week. ®
Mike Magee, 24 Oct 1999
The Register breaking news

Russian Merced killer firm confirms Transmeta link

The Russian microprocessor startup firm which claims its E2K chip could give Intel's Merced-Itanium a run for its money, is claiming links with Transmeta, Cygnus, Avant! and Sun. Boris Babayan, scientific head of Elbrus, used to work for the Soviet Government and claims his team of architects pioneered a number of developments in architecture design. Those claims are hotly disputed by many senior chip architects in the US. In an interview with Lenin Prize Winner Babayan last year, The Register heard him claim that the Elbrus architectural approach beat Intel's Merced approach hands down on a number of fronts. And in June this year, Gordon Bell, a top Microsoft boffin, claimed that the Elbrus approach to microprocessor design definitely had a future. The Russian firm claims funding from the Moscow government and from a number of other investors. But it is also claiming on this Web site, in English, that it has a close relationship with mystery company start up company Transmeta and with arch-Intel rival Sun. Elbrus does not elaborate on the nature of this relationship; nor indeed does it explain the relationships it claims with a stack of other Western companies. Meanwhile, Transmeta's Web site has a vastly understated presence in typical post-technologist form. It used to claim: "This web page is not here yet" but has recently added "...but it is Y2K compliant". ® See also Top MS boffin votes for Russian Merced killer Russian chip scientist outlines Elbrus futures Moscow government to support Merced Killer Ex-Soviets seek $$$ for Merced Killer - Transmeta linked?
Mike Magee, 24 Oct 1999
The Register breaking news

USB Bug found with fast AMD chips, Win98SE

People with AMD microprocessors running at clock speeds over 350MHz and who use Windows 98 Second Edition need a workaround if they're using USB devices. The Microsoft support site, which has a specific page on the problem here, is offering a downloadable file which it claims will solve the problem. According to the site, people with PCs that use a Via USB controller and an AMD processor clocking at 350MHz or faster, could have problems making their USB peripherals works. The glitch is caused by a timing specific problem in the USB driver, according to Microsoft. Thanks to Japanese reader Battlax for pointing the problem out to us. He also adds that Melco, which has a site here, has released an AMD K6-2/533 upgrade kit, which will allow users to overclock their K6-2/500s to 533MHz. ®
Mike Magee, 24 Oct 1999
The Register breaking news

Microsoft axes free newsgroup support team

Microsoft is pulling the plugs on its Most Valuable Professionals (MVPs) support system, according to a 'so long, and thanks for all the fish' email sent to MVPs by company director of business development Joseph Lindstrom last week. The system, which will end from the beginning of December, used volunteer MVP labour to provide free newsgroup-based support via newsgroups. According to Lindstrom's email Microsoft will replace it with a programme "in which technical newsgroups are staffed by Microsoft support professionals." The switch has raised the ire of soon-to-be-former MVPs, who have provided valuable free support for Microsoft customers, and who are (were?) to a considerable extent Microsoft loyalists. Lindstrom's explanation for the change is vague and not entirely convincing: "Each year, Microsoft customer participation in the newsgroups has grown and we expect this to continue. Due to customer feedback and requests for more direct Microsoft involvement, we are changing our newsgroups strategy." 'Customer demand' is an MFUE (Most Frequently Used Excuse) round at Microsoft Towers, but although you can probably accept that customers wanted more MS participation in the newsgroups, it's difficult to credit that they've been voting to have the MVPs taken out and shot. Lindstrom says the switch will increase customer contact with Microsoft support, and "to respond to customer requests for... guaranteed response times." This isn't quite the same as achieving guaranteed response times, and also ominous is his statement that "Microsoft will redirect their investments previously made in the MVP Program to the newsgroups overall and driving customer awareness of this valuable resource." That implies Microsoft won't be putting extra resource into newsgroup support, and with the demise of free labour, it'll probably mean a decline in the level of that support. MVPs have been rewarded by Microsoft, but the resources expended on them seem to have been largely a matter of internal accounting. They won't get any more "MVP bucks," and will have to spend the ones they've got before the end of November. Any MVP-related MSDN and TechNet subs they have won't be renewed, and their MSN accounts will be terminated at the end of November too. One of the most bizarre things about the matter is the fact that Microsoft has dumped its loyal volunteers at a time when, by its own admission, it is trying to figure out how to respond to the volunteer efforts of the open source movement. As Peter Boulding, of Peter Boulding Associates, points out in an open letter to Lindstrom, "Professional/high-end users of your products will lose out badly from the reluctance of MVPs to continue to provide free support for a company that's just kicked them in the teeth. Since you abandoned the supply of genuine manuals, the MVPs have provided an *essential* resource without which your competitors' products appear an increasingly attractive option to such users." So why has Microsoft done it? The explanation is likely to be a combination of bean-counting and control-freakery. In the long run giving away free support (even if Microsoft itself isn't picking up much of the tab) undermines Microsoft's own ability to charge for support. And as Microsoft intends to turn itself into a service company, we can't have that, can we? Nor indeed can we have the free support being better and more responsive than Microsoft's own paid-for varieties. Not being able to police the way the support is supplied, and what the MVPs tell the customers, will also have been a big problem for Microsoft. If the gospel goes out at all under the new regime, it will undoubtedly be the gospel according to Redmond - will there be a prize for the first "Microsoft support professional" who says "support contract"? ®
John Lettice, 24 Oct 1999
The Register breaking news

French senators propose making open source compulsory

French senators Pierre Laffitte and René Trégouët are proposing that national and local government and administrative systems should only use open source software. Arguing in favour of their proposed law number 495, they say ease of communication and free access by citizens to information can only be achieved if the administration is not dependent on the goodwill of the publishers of the software. "Open systems whose evolution can be guaranteed via the free availability of source code are needed," they say. The two senators have set up a discussion forum for the proposed law at the French Senate Web site, and put forward the text, and their own explanation of why the move is needed. They see the Internet as becoming the primary way for government and citizens to communicate, and propose a period of transition prior to a switchover to wholly electronic communications. According to Article 3 of law 495, "State administration, local government and administrative services... can only use software free of [IP] rights and whose source code is available. A decree will fix the terms of transition from the current situation." In addition, the senators see the switch to open source by the state as providing the engine to drive a far broader movement. Private companies dealing with the state, in bidding for contracts, for example, will tend to switch to open source to make it easier to do so electronically, while those who supply the state with computer systems will have to redouble their open source efforts. Impressively, neither Windows nor Linux is mentioned in their proposed law and its supporting documentation, but it's pretty clear what the effect will be if it passes. Time for another Bill Gates visit to Lionel Jospin and Jacques Chirac, we fear. We're not sure what law 495's chances are, but perhaps a French reader can help us out with some further information. And while they're about it, could they explain to us why it's only number 495? Whenever we've been in France we've got the impression that there are a hell of a lot more than just 494 laws... ® Update: Thanks to all the French readers who've contacted us with explanations (in the plural, unfortunately) for the legal situation. We're inclined to go for it being a number for a "proposition de loi" rather than for a specific law. Alternative explanations are that it's the number of laws proposed by the senate, or the number proposed this year, and so on. But all French readers confirm France has a lot more than 495 laws. Now, could one of you explain the law governing the closed season for hedge-clipping?
John Lettice, 24 Oct 1999
The Register breaking news

U-boat commander damns MS marketing team

As some of you are no doubt aware, aside from being the codename for Microsoft clustering technology, "Wolfpack" was also the term used by the wartime German navy to describe hunting groups of U-boats. These are covered in Lothar-Günter Buchheim's excellent novel Das Boot, wherein we find a strangely appropriate reference to the word. The increasingly disaffected Kapitänleutnant of Das Boot explodes: "They've christened the group 'Wolf Pack' - marvellous!" says the Old Man. "Apparently they have a kind of court poet at Staff Headquarters who thinks up this bullshit - 'Wolf Pack'! 'Daisies' would have done just as well…" Curiously prescient for a 1973 novel set in 1941 to get the MS marketing team's number so exquisitely. ®
Dan Kizzair, 24 Oct 1999