Ours are the best chips

Mike Hardaker looks at Intel's efforts to stay ahead in the components market
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Indy Lifestyle Online
There's something odd about the "Intel Inside'' logo, which has been seen on billboards and magazine advertisements for a few years now. When else has an electronic components manufacturer made such an effort to brand itself? Fifties radiograms di d not crow about having Mullard valves inside, and I have no idea which integrated circuits are in my calculator, my watch, my food processor or the engine-management system of my car. And quite frankly, I don't give a damn.

So what makes Intel special? Quite simply, Intel is in a near- monopolistic position and wants it to stay that way. When IBM entered the niche microcomputer market in 1981, it placed an Intel micropocessor at the heart of its Personal Computer. Although IBM traditionally suffers from the Not Invented Here syndrome, time and budgets were so tight that the "brain'' of the PC (and just about everything else) was bought in from third parties. Big Blue just sort of glued all the bits together.

The PC sold in exponentially larger quantities than anyone expected and soon other manufacturers started copying the IBM design. Once outsiders had found ways of replicating the behaviour of the parts of the system invented by IBM, it was simply a question of buying in the same components as IBM and stitching them together in much the same way.

The most important of these was the microprocessor which, for compatibility with the market-leading IBM, had to be a member of the Intel x86 family (all descended from the 8086, a modified version of which - the 8088 - sat in that first PC).

The clone manufacturers chipped away at IBM's hegemony and, in due course, became dominant.

It doesn't matter to Intel who makes the PCs; they still use Intel microprocessors. From time to time, others have tried to clone Intel's chips; but Intel has successfully resisted the large-scale replication that IBM suffered from. NEC cloned the 8088 and 8086 in the mid-1980s but few used these, despite the fact that they were faster and cheaper than the Intel equivalents. Since then, clone versions of 80386 and 80486 microprocessors have emerged from companies such as Cyrix and AMD.

Intel owes its survival partly to its ability to stay one step ahead of the competition at the top end of the market. Just as IBM stole a march on the clone makers with the launch of the PC-AT in 1984, so Intel has been the first to market with new generations of microprocessor - the 80486 and the Pentium.

If you want the fastest Windows machine money can buy today, it has to have a 100 Mhz Intel Pentium chip at its heart. The next-generation P6 is scheduled for launch sometime in 1995, probably arriving even before the competition has managed to get Pentium-like performance.

But the company also owes its success to great corporate branding, of which the Intel Inside campaign is a manifestation. It is this (plus a robust attitude towards litigation whenever a clone maker jets too close to Intel's intellectual property) which helps Intel to dominate the lower and middle reaches of the marketplace, where most PCs are sold.

The fact is that Intel's 80486 microprocessors are not, in any real sense, better than those from Cyrix or RMD. This is being recognised by an increasing number of manufacturers including Compaq, which has recently announced that it will no longer be single-sourcing its microprocessors. It is likely, however, that Intel will be inside most Compaqs for the forseeable future, partly because the massive boom in multimedia computing has helped to make Pentium levels of performance desirable even in a relatively "low end'' PC, but also because competing chip makers are still catching up and are still unable to provide the horsepower.

Intel's dominance could be threatened by two things. If new generations of portable operating systems make the "architecture'' of the core microprocessor irrelevant, consumers will be able to choose by price and performance. This is unlikely to happen for some years at least - and the operating systems are unlikely to be seen before 1997. It may take longer still for them to gain consumer acceptance.

The other threat is that a chip maker will leapfrog Intel with a microprocessor that is appreciably faster than the Pentium or the P6, yet runs today's software straight out of the box. The equivalent happened in the PC market in 1986, when Compaq shipped a computer based on the 80386 microprocessor before IBM.

It looks as if Intel's position in the personal computer market is safe until the turn of the century, when "gigachip'' technologies reach the market. These will allow so-called "chameleon" microprocessors which can happily emulate a range of chips, but with performance that is almost unimaginable today. Intel will undoubtedly be one of the gigachip suppliers. But for the first time since the early 1980s, the firm will be competing with rivals on equal terms.