Intel (Nasdaq: INTC) made some headlines last month with a rather unusual idea for how to upgrade certain processors -- via a $50 scratch card that provides a code to unlock more horsepower in the CPU. The patent for the technology has surfaced, indicating that Intel has been playing with this idea for a while, but with a very different and, conceivably, much more useful background.

The idea of upgrading your CPU via a scratch card that you buy at a local store got quite a few people out there upset. Intel was accused of squeezing more money out of a product that has been purchased already. If you don't pay the extra $50, you won't get the extra horsepower that is locked up in your CPU.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted Intel the patent that covers the idea on Oct. 12. Given that the company filed for the patent on Nov. 15, 2005, it is clear that this isn't a new concept and that Intel had this idea since the very beginning of the availability of its processors with more than one core. Intel's first dual-core processor, the Pentium D 800-series (code-named Smithfield), was released in May of 2005.

The patent is titled "On-demand CPU licensing activation" and describes "a method and apparatus for on-demand CPU licensing." It continues:

An embodiment of a processor license system includes an agent to determine that a computer processing element in a computer system is faulty or unreliable. The system further includes an activation license manager. The activation license manager provides automatic activation of a spare computer processing element for the computer system upon a determination by the agent that the computer processing element is faulty or unreliable.

Of course, this is a fundamentally different notion of how hidden processing resources would be used. The patent primarily points to the idea of using extra processing capability as a "spare tire" that will keep your PC running even if some CPU components may have died. The bottom line is the same: There is extra and locked-up CPU capacity the user is not aware of, and it is up to Intel to release it.

However, the patent quickly switches its tone in its detailed description and lays out a scenario in which Intel could charge extra for more CPU capacity:

The unused processing power in computer systems has implications in the licensing of computer processors. For example, a user or an application may wish to only license a certain number of active processor cores or processors, with any additional processors or cores being available as spares for future expansion. If a user's needs increase and an additional processor core is needed, an additional license fee may then be added for the additional core. After the additional fee is paid, the user may be provided with the code or key needed to activate and initiate usage of the processor or core.

And this is where it gets interesting. If the user chooses not to upgrade through a licensing fee, the patent lays out a scenario in which the extra processing power or the extra core can be used to replace a defective core down the road -- on demand and, as far as we understand, without extra cost:

"In particular, if a failure, potential failure, or reduced reliability condition arises for an active computer processor or core, platform, or system, then there is potential unused processing capacity to replace the component. However, the need to address the licensing of the processor or core prior to use creates a delay before the component can be replaced."

Now here is an idea. Giving users the option of more cores and enabling at least one of them to serve as a spare tire sounds like a better idea to us than a $50 upgrade card that is offered next to $15 iTunes cards. The scratch-card upgrade may make business sense for Intel to increase the profit on low-margin products, but there is barrier to sell this idea in a conclusive way to consumers. A heal-yourself first-aid kit sounds much more reasonable to us.

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