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November 8, 1994

ALPHA DEAD, MIPS HEADING FOR NICHE MARKETS, SPARC IN DOUBT AS INTEL, HEWLETT ALLY, INTERNATIONAL DATA RECKONS

By CBR Staff Writer

Intel Corp has decided that its future chip development direction lies in Very Long Instruction Word chips, rather than trying to boost performance by developing a RISC chip with iAPX-86 emulation, according to market researcher International Data Corp, Framingham, Massachusetts. IDC has been considering the meaning of the Intel-Hewlett-Packard Co chip alliance and how it might happen, and although neither company has said the Very Long Instruction Word chip is the path they are taking, that is the route IDC and others think they are treading. Hewlett-Packard and Intel have promised that the chip they eventually produce will be compatible with both iAPX-86 and Precision Architecture RISC, in either case no mean feat. IDC believes that Intel and Hewlett-Packard will try to achieve compatibility, or as much as possible, by means of software. This would leave the silicon entirely Very Long Instruction Word and free of legacy circuitry. Because of the difficulty it is expected to have making the thing iAPX-86-compatible, IDC thinks Intel might, as a last resort, provide a real-time interpreter, with on-chip execution of intractable iAPX-86 instructions. It says a recompiler could be made available to software developers but not end users. It reckons Hewlett-Packard could provide both an interpreter and a recompiler and probably will not need on-chip Precision Architecture execution. Hewlett-Packard could get away with a recompiler because its installed base is independent software vendors and experienced end users. IDC believes there will be room for only three major chip architectures by 2000. It assumes the Intel-Hewlett-Packard pact will produce a new Very Long Instruction Word architecture replacing both iAPX-86 and Precision Architecture. If so, it believes that it and the PowerPC will be the two dominant architectures, with PowerPC on the defensive by the turn of the century. IDC obviously regards Alpha as doomed. May soon lose vendors It writes that the Alpha architecture is unlikely to be adopted by additional computer vendors and may soon lose vendors. Whether Digital Equipment Corp can long sustain the investment required for Alpha is very questionable. That leaves Sparc and MIPS Technologies Inc R-series. IDC says Sparc will probably lose market share to Intel-Hewlett-Packard, and that eventually Sun may be forced to adopt an additional architecture that IDC thinks would be PowerPC. The Intel-Hewlett-Packard combine is not that likely to have an impact on MIPS, which IDC hazards will become a specialised niche architecture for graphics and video entertainment – it’s the star performer in future Japanese games machines. On the other hand, it reckons there is a long shot that a major vendor such as DEC could adopt it (again), at which point it would become the third surviving general-purpose chip. The other possibility, and this IDC calls the wild card though it is confident it will happen, is that vendors unaligned with either Intel-Hewlett-Packard or the PowerPC triumvirate will ally to develop their own next-generation architecture. It suggests DEC with Sun Microsystems Inc or Silicon Graphics Inc. Such an alliance would sound the death knell for either Sparc or MIPS. Meanwhile, back on the Intel-Hewlett-Packard front, IDC thinks Hewlett-Packard will have the right to produce merchant versions of the Intel-Hewlett-Packard chip for its own use during shortages while relying on Intel’s low-cost manufacturing for most of what it needs. It will probably be able to produce customised versions, giving it a great advantage in designing specialised products for telecommunication, video, defence and other high value markets. IDC says Hewlett-Packard is unlikely to take these chips to market but may supply merchant chips to Intel from excess capacity. – Jane Dudman

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