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July 26, 1994

“SPARC, ALPHA DOOMED TO FOLLOW 88000, CLIPPER; PRECISION 86, POWERPC ONLY WINNERS UNLESS…” MICROPROCESSOR REPORT

By CBR Staff Writer

Confronted with the new Intel Corp-Hewlett-Packard Co alliance, the Microprocessor Report has delivered itself of the argument that maybe somebody out there should come up with another chip architecture. It reasons that, with the exception of the PowerPC, none of the current RISC systems has the software support or the money to compete against the on-coming post-RISC Intel-Hewlett-Packard chip which, because of the failure of its putative parents to supply a name, the newsletter has taken to calling the P86. It says it is likely that most personal computer vendors will follow Intel. Sun, it says, will need to abandon Sparc at some point, possibly for PowerPC and other RISC vendors could go either P86 or PowerPC. Lest the industry be left with only one or two choices, editor Linley Gwennap says, a third architecture could be created by joining Compaq, which clearly dislikes having a single CPU source, with the MIPS team, bringing in NEC Corp, Integrated Device Technology and Toshiba as multiple chip sources. Silicon Graphics would provide CPU design expertise as well as system products complementary to Compaq’s. NEC is the leading Japanese system vendor. The new architecture could offer compatibility with both MIPS and iAPX-86. To assist with the latter, Advanced Micro Devices’s design skills would be useful; AMD is also a CPU vendor that Compaq is comfortable with. Although this scenario is just one possible outcome, Gwennap claims that pressures are building to cause such a radical industry realignment. Gwennap’s argument assumes that Intel is really dedicated to replacing iAPX-86 with the P86, and that five or 10 years from now there will be real volume demand for chips that deliver thousands of MIPS. With those two assumptions in mind, he reckons that iAPX-86 vendors have only a limited window left. Once the P86 appears, the iAPX-86 market, including Pentium and still-to-be-seen P6, will inexorably decline and vanish by the year 2002, eight years from now. Intel will probably make the alternative of building P86-compatible processor nigh impossible both by keeping portions of the new architecture a secret and by surrounding it with patents. As for the RISC camp, well, in Gwennap’s view only PowerPC has a chance. The others he consigns to the purgatory of low-volume markets unable to attract independent software vendors to support them or major systems vendors to sell them. Silicon Graphics and the MIPS vendors It is also unclear to him whether the RISC folk will be able to keep up with the post-RISC P86 design, although they may be able to keep abreast by putting multiple processors on one chip. To compete with post-RISC designs of their own would require heavy investment and probably the support of major systems vendors who in turn would attract the independent software vendors. Gwennap isolates four companies that can make a big difference to any fledgling architecture: Compaq Computer Corp, Digital Equipment Corp, Sun Microsystems Inc and NEC Corp. These companies, he says, can stay with their current processors and risk becoming uncompetitive in the long run. They can adopt P86 and lock themselves into a single chip vendor. They can move to PowerPC, but that architecture may not provide compatibility with these vendors’ current software base. DEC, he reckons will not do it. Sun and Compaq could form a powerful third axis but Sun, he thinks, is headed towards PowerPC, leaving Compaq to team up with Silicon Graphics and the MIPS vendors.

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