Gigahertz grows up

It’s up to you, Doug Cooper.

You, and you alone, must convince people like me to convince customers everywhere that there is a reason to upgrade to the 2 GHz Pentium 4 that was released this week at Intel Corp.’s Developer Forum in Santa Clara, Calif. No one envies you this job.

Surely it must feel this way to Cooper, Intel’s Canadian country manager, who stopped by today to discuss the 2 GHz P4 over lunch. Although it is naturally the responsibility of a chipmaker to justify a platform migration as processors increase in speed and performance, this particular launch represents an opportunity to galvanize the industry and potentially re-ignite IT spending across the board. Like Microsoft, which will be burdened with similar expectations as Windows XP comes out, Intel is supposed to make everyone care again.

To its credit, Intel has never been shy about marketing, spending an estimated US$100 million to promote the PIII when it came out a few years ago. This time around will be more challenging. We’re not talking about a new processor, just a faster one, and users are slowly realizing that megahertz or gigahertz speed alone does not tell the full story about what a chip can allow a system to do. This is compounded by the PC market’s doldrums. IDC Canada recently reported the first-ever decrease in domestic PC shipments, which was blamed primarily on market saturation, at least on the consumer end. One analyst called it the “good enough computing” phenomenon, where users decide to save their money as long as application performance has reached a certain indefinable level.

Cooper doesn’t buy that theory. This is not a big surprise, given that it threatens the chipmaker’s entire business model. But having worked with Intel since its embedded days, he was impressively articulate about how customers could be won over. Asked to name a possible killer application which could bring 2 GHz into the mainstream, Cooper didn’t hesitate.

“Digital imaging,” he said. “You’ll see that a 2 GHz system will allow people to do a lot more with effects and so forth that wasn’t possible before without, say, an Avid workstation, which would have been really expensive.”

Cooper admitted that Intel will need to play a strong role in helping customers recognize the power of these sorts of applications. “Now it’s part of this big education process, but when you’re talking to them at demo days, I’ve seen the light bulbs go off,” he said. “People have hours of camcorder footage that they don’t know what to do with.”

Cooper thinks in terms of processor lines, and he said users who fall into the “good enough computing” camp usually opt for its Celeron chips. “The premium performance brands have been consistently doing well,” he said. “We haven’t seen any cannibalization between the Celeron and the Pentiums, which is what you would expect if this was really happening on a large scale.”

The corporate applications sounded less compelling. Cooper cited 3D rendering in business analysis, video decompression for e-learning and peer-to-peer interaction for collaboration. Though all three of these areas will see considerable development, I demand has not yet reached a point where 2 GHz computing is mandatory.

Indeed, while Intel obviously hopes to see the 2 GHz Pentium 4 usurp the PIII, the company has committed to working with large IT shops in supporting their current platform for a while longer.

The problem with the processor industry is that while we have Moore’s Law to tell us how quickly chips will double their speed, we have no law that tells how quickly the market is ready to adopt the new standard. Even Cooper admitted that this is a tricky area, and it will be harder as long as the downturn continues. Even the best pair of running shoes are just lumps of rubber if no one puts them on their feet.

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