Intel versus the rest

One of the most successful companies to have benefited from the growth of IT is Intel. In particular Intel have benefited from the PC explosion, but they have also done well with RISC processors, controllers and memory chips. It is a measure of Intel's success that there is an established clique of companies that make processors compatible with the Intel CPUs, e.g. AMD and Cyrix. However like the rest of the IT industry Intel are seeing a down turn in their fortunes, largely because of the falling interest in PCs.

It is well known that Microsoft and Intel have been good for each other. Microsoft wrote their software to run on the Intel processors and Intel faithfully produced faster processors that could run new releases of software. It was known as the "Wintel" industry; "what ever Intel giveth, Microsoft taketh away", and the rest of the PC industry loved it. This inter-dependence has certainly benefited both so far, but the next decade is going to be dominated by centralised computing, communications and mobile devices, so it is going to be interesting to see if the love affair will continue or whether they will go their own way. I suspect a little of each in fact.
Microsoft have already made their intentions clear, and that is to try to monopolise the Internet and thus to be able to put their own price tag on it, as they did with the PC. This is going to be a lot more difficult this time round, particularly as their software for mobile devices, Windows CE is nothing to get excited about and the OSS movement is proving a worthy adversary. On the other hand Intel are still stuck in the PC camp. They have however already made an investment in centralised computing by continuing to develop their processor range, both with more power and with a 64-bit capability. These processors, particularly in 4 or 8 multi-processor designs, are already proving very capable in departmental server installations. As the software gets better, then these enhanced PCs are threatening other systems, particularly the Unix machines of Sun and Hewlett-Packard. Many older computer manufacturers such as Compaq (Digital), Unisys and tentatively Fujitsu in one or more guises now have a significant investment in Intel based servers. The problem they face is bringing the software up to standard. Most are struggling with Windows but the major trend is towards Linux; that must be giving hope to Intel and worrying Sun and Microsoft. It is worth noting that while Linux is portable, there are only two serious implementations, one on IBM mainframes - and the others all on Intel processors.
But the concentration on PCs has left Intel with a serious problem. The demands of the PC were for more and more processing capability, while the mobile market demanded lower power consumption. These are diverse requirements for LSI technology and it is other companies who have invested in techniques for lower power consumption. As a result Intel are nowhere in the supply of components to the telephone and other portable device manufacturers. There is one company threatening to dominate the new markets, just as Intel dominated the 90's, and that is IBM. IBM has always been a major manufacturer of components, largely for their own machines, but in addition they are big in the OEM business. They even supply Motorola for their mobiles, and we should not forget that Motorola is a major component manufacturer in their own right. Indeed the IBM PowerPC RISC chip was a joint venture with Motorola originally, but it is the low power consumption products in which they have such a lead. It is quite possible that IBM's OEM revenues will exceed Intel's within the next few years.
Is a fascinating anecdote to realise that one man created the opportunity for Intel, and that is not Bob Grove but the late Gary Kildall. Intel were in competition with Motorola at the end of the 8-bit era. The Motorola 6809 was a better chip than the Intel 8080, but Kildall worked for Intel and wrote the operating system for their development system. He left and formed Digital Research and reworked it as CP/M; there was no equivalent for the 6809 and so the embryonic Microcomputer industry grew up on Intel. With the advent of 16-bit processors, the same applied with CP/M-86 and its clone DOS-86, later to become PC or MS DOS. The vastly superior Motorola 68000 found its way into bigger machines and the Apple Mac, but the volumes went Intel's way. Funny how little things influence the future, isn't it?


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article 2001-10-26T00:00:00.000Z Martin Healey
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