Digital Equipment Corp dropped the legal equivalent of a nuclear device through Intel Corp’s mailbox early Tuesday morning, claiming the world’s largest chip maker has unlawfully used DEC Alpha RISC and other microprocessor technologies in the design and development of its Intel Pentium, Pentium Pro and Pentium II chips. According to the law suit filed in the Worcester, Massachusetts courthouse which is nearest to DEC Semiconductor’s headquarters, DEC wants Intel to stop using DEC technologies in its microprocessor designs and is seeking damages which reflect the advantage Intel has gained from their use. In the three full financial years since Pentium was launched in 1993, Intel has made a profit of $13.3bn on revenues of $57.3bn. DEC says that up to two thirds of Intel’s entire revenue is affected by the suit. It claims that at a time when RISC architectures were threatening CISC designs, Intel used information disclosed to it confidentially in 1990 and 1991 when the two companies were in discussions about Intel licensing the Alpha design, to develop its Pentium generation parts. Intel decided not to license Alpha, but DEC’s interest piqued when Intel announced the Pentium processor which provided a quantum leap in performance over previous designs. Its attention was further provoked by an article in the August 26 1996 edition of the Wall Street Journal which claimed Intel had done little original research on microprocessor design and quoted top Intel executives admitting the company had copied and improved upon approaches already developed by other manufacturers, (CI No 2,992). The piece described the creation of a Microcomputer Lab which Intel would use do its own long-term research into microprocessor design because there’s nothing left to copy. DEC CEO Bob Palmer said that on closer investigation following publication of the WSJ report the similarities between Pentium Pro and Alpha became obvious, and the company concluded its patents were being infringed. It then decided to begin proceedings against Intel. Palmer claims Intel is using technology it couldn’t do in its own labs and is now using that technology to extend its monopoly of the desktop microprocessor architecture to departmental and enterprise computing. He said I don’t mind competing against Intel but I’d rather not compete against ourselves.
It’s surely no coincidence that DEC has launched its suit just days after announcing its will be using Advanced Micro Devices Inc’s K6 Pentium II-compatible part rather than Intel parts in its high-performance PC systems. The irony is that DEC ships more systems that use Intel microprocessors than its own Alpha chips. DEC says Intel has infringed ten patents in the areas of cache memory, coherent cache management, branch prediction, high-speed execution and pipeline design which it was awarded between 1988 and 1996. Whether the suit has merit isn’t clear, although DEC’s sure to win private support from the rest of the RISC community. Tom Siekman, DEC’s general counsel was previously its chief patent counsel for about twenty years. One observer remarked he is very conservative and if wrong on this could be in trouble – therefore he is probably right. The news comes just months after it was revealed DEC had threatened to sue Microsoft for poaching intellectual property in the form of the Mica code that became Windows NT (CI No 3,117). DEC’s wide-ranging alliance with Microsoft on NT resulted, which included a $105m payment to DEC. DEC shares closed up $2.125 at $33.25; Intel stock was off $6.75 at $152.375. Intel declined to comment.