SAN FRANCISCO — First came the dragons, blinking their multi-coloured eyelids and flapping their jaws as they cavorted between the sidewalks. Then came children, lots of them, all wearing cardboard cut-outs in the shape of horses around their torsos. They weren’t exactly moving at gigahertz speed,
but maybe that’s because they didn’t realize they were the opening act for the biggest processor company in the world.
It was the Chinese New Year’s Parade, and it took place just two days before Intel Developer Forum (IDF) 2002 gathered most of the major hardware and software companies for a four-day glimpse of the chipmaker’s immediate future. Intel did not have a float in the parade, though a large inflatable Pentium would hardly have been out of place. For one thing, this was technically the “”Southwest Airlines”” Chinese New Year’s Parade, where corporate sponsorship gets top billing over any cultural celebration. For another, this is the Year of the Horse, which in some ways helps explain the challenges Intel faces.
According to a Web site devoted to Chinese astrology, “”Year 2002 won’t be a peaceful year. It’s just an unfriendly area and we have to pass through it.”” Of course, Intel already knows this. It announced new server products Monday for a market that is not buying. It is pushing a platform, Itanium, that has been plagued by setbacks and mediocre adoption among corporate customers. Most disturbing, it is finding itself at a plateau where its previous-generation architecture may end up competing with its high-end offerings.
The improved Xeon chips, for example, come with many improvements — so many that it is hard to imagine any but the most demanding customers upgrading to McKinley, the latest Itanium processors. Formerly code-named Prestonia, these Xeons are Pentium 4-based chips that will likely carry Intel’s server customers well into 2003, if not longer. The Prestonia can meet the needs of four-CPU servers, has more memory and an extra 1MB of level three cache. The size and power of McKinley would probably dwarf the Prestonia in a benchmark test, but performance may not be enough, given it is also more expensive than its P4 sibling. Compaq, IBM, HP and Dell are all expected to announce Prestonia-based systems available this week, which indicates hardware makers are going for what their customers want now, not a top-of-the-line technology they might want once the economy recovers.
Apart from these hurdles, Intel also has the arduous role of fortune-telling the rest of the industry’s future as well. Companies like IBM now shy away from commodity items like the PC because the margins are so low that it is tempting to try and push the market to more lucrative items, such as mobile devices. Intel, which already runs an excellent PC design program, will use IDF 2002 to demonstrate the place the desktop will hold in enterprises over the next few years. CPUs have sometimes been described as the heart of the PC, and at this conference Intel has to live up to its role as the pacemaker.
Finally, there are probably many people who have come to IDF — including me — who want to hear the long-term horoscope for the Alpha, the reference designs for which Intel purchased from Compaq last year. As a technology, the Alpha is like a golden egg that no one seemed able to cook a decent meal with, and this conference gives Intel a great opportunity to prove it will capitalize on its investment.
As a processor specialist, Intel makes products that conduct energy and pass it into areas where it can be put to good use. In Chinese astrology, the horse is largely considered a fire sign, so perhaps this is Intel’s year (though it should be noted that it was AMD, not Intel, which code-named one of its chips Thoroughbred).
With more than an 80 per cent share of the worldwide chip market, there’s not much that could happen in 2002 to knock Intel out of the saddle. It simply has to offer the tools and the incentive at IDF 2002 that will get a trotting industry to start galloping again.