We've been very unfashionable here in the Rule Maker, singing Intel's (Nasdaq: INTC) praises when hardly anyone else will.
In fact, Intel's been hit with bad press at every turn. Even the sober EE Times laments Intel's difficulties in cranking out the Pentium 4, and by now everyone's heard at least some of the hoopla over a few glitches, even though they didn't amount to anything. Worst by far, however, have been the many, many reviews that indicate the P4 simply doesn't hold up against AMD's Athlon, or even the Pentium III.
What? Intel's next generation chip is no faster than its last generation? No faster than the competition? DIVE! DIVE!
Just kidding. Well, I wouldn't be if Intel's next product, the fruit of countless thousands of engineering hours and untold millions of dollars, really were a bomb -- that would be a disaster. But it's not. It's the chip that will put Intel squarely in the lead again.
Intel, more than any other company, has defined the personal computer for years, and other companies have merely followed its lead. As long as Intel stayed out front, the rest of the pack was left with the low-end, low-margin market, doomed to be also-rans. Advanced Micro Devices (NYSE: AMD), Intel's most successful competitor, has netted $0.5 billion since Christmas of 1995 -- which sounds like a pretty good chunk of change until you consider that Intel's netted five times that much in the last quarter alone. Over the same five years, Intel has netted $33.8 billion. The rest of the chip makers have folded, consolidated, or remained a small part of a much larger business. Intel has always kept nearly all of the PC market share.
Until this year. This year AMD made impressive inroads as Intel began to stumble over one thing and another. If it wasn't expensive Rambus (Nasdaq: RMBS) memory Intel couldn't do much with, it was bad chipsets that had to be pulled. In the meantime, AMD was introducing improved, faster Athlons and giving PC customers more power for less money. Although AMD still hasn't broken into the important corporate market and is still fighting a reputation for not being able to supply sufficient chip volume, it nevertheless has given more customers a bigger smile than ever, and for the first time AMD has sold chips -- and plenty of them -- in the high-end, high-margin market. Scary stuff for Intel, which has historically held a strong lead. How is Intel going to recapture the larger lead it once had?
Enter the Pentium 4. It's a chip capable of far greater performance than today's software would lead one to believe, because when today's software was written the authors had less-advanced hardware in mind. The Pentium 4 is a wholly new design, and is capable of unleashing far greater performance than the standard benchmarks indicate.
Right now some very nice people, people as hopelessly mired in computer nuance as myself, are saying, "sure, if you write the software for the chip, it'll be faster -- but if you optimize the software for AMD as well, then we're back to square one." Not so. Once software is optimized for the Pentium 4 -- not rewritten, just quickly and simply recompiled overnight -- the Pentium 4 blows away everything else.
The difference is huge -- and it is little diminished even when the software is optimized for the Athlon, too. It's all documented in a marvelous series of articles that leave no doubt that the Pentium 4 is the fastest, thanks to a radically new and superior design -- one that finally finds a use for that fancy Rambus memory. The Pentium 4 can also be pushed to far greater speeds, and the Athlon won't be able to keep up.
The Pentium 4, with so much new technology, is giving even tech reviewers a hard time figuring its true potential. It's only just starting to become clear that Intel is back in the saddle, once again offering the best processor money can buy, and for top-of-the-line price. It's a wonderful formula for success, and it keeps Intel in consumers' minds as the premier computer-chip maker.
Keeping a competitor behind you isn't easy, but it's a breeze compared to pushing them back once they've started to gain ground. The enormity of the effort Intel is having to make to increase its lead on AMD is evident in the Pentium 4's ambitious and expensive design, but keeping AMD from gaining more ground is worth almost any price. Introducing the Pentium 4 forces AMD to come up with its own new chip, which it's in the process of doing right now.
These chip wars aren't anything new, and they'll keep building over the next couple of years and finally culminate in the difficult transition to 64-bit processing (from today's 32-bit). This crucial battle is one Intel is currently poised to win, because AMD is getting almost no support for its 64-bit architecture. With almost no operating system makers coming to the party AMD is throwing, the default computer setting is firmly set to Intel.
It's going to be a big battle for both companies, the most important to take place since the Power PC, and for AMD perhaps ever. The Pentium 4 will help make sure that Intel stays on top in the meantime -- an important matter, considering that if Intel were to lose more ground, AMD would have a much better shot of getting its 64-bit chip accepted by software makers. Intel's unquestioned dominance is what is keeping fellow Rule Maker Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) for example, uninterested in supporting AMD's 64-bit platform. And without 64-bit operating system support, AMD's noble run for the throne will at last be at an end.
The Pentium 4 has indeed been created with the future in mind, and in more ways than one will help Intel keep making the rules. Companies need to keep a healthy, well-paced lead in the never-ending marathon of business, and they can only do that by thinking many miles ahead. Intel's inside track is just what we like to see.
Until next time, Fool on!
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