The Pit and the Pentium

By Phil Trent

Date: April 15, 2002

I was thinking about AMD and Intel’s battle that went from the cold-war era of the K6-2 to the full-on confrontation with the Athlon, introduced in 1999. While it is usual for IT companies to swap licks for a few years – think 3DFX vs Nvidia, Apple vs IBM - it usually ends up a one-sided contest. In the end, there can be only one (dominant one).

One of my favorite scenes from The Matrix is right at the beginning when the police sergeant and Agent Smith are talking.  “I told you to wait,” says Agent Smith, referring to his order not to go after the suspect. “Don’t worry,” says the sergeant, “I’ve got two units up there.” Agent Smith turns to the sergeant and replies, “Your men are already dead.” Is the Sledgehammer simply too much for the Itanium and their (rumored) pseudo x86-64 bit chip to handle? Are they already dead, but just don’t know it yet?


Pentium and Rocky

Intel is trying to position the Pentium 4 and the Itanium to rough up the Clawhammer and Sledgehammer, respectively. If the latter perform on par with predictions, Intel is in trouble.  No, it is not the trouble of just a minor performance differential; it is the difference of a platform change that Intel may not be able to weather.

Intel’s Pentium name is getting old.  The Pentium naming scheme seems to be paralleling the Rocky movies. Pentium III/Rocky III was really good, and Pentium IV/Rocky IV was ok, but the name and series seemed to be wearing a bit thin.  Hmm, what about Rocky V


The 64-bit Question

There are basically two competing standards for the 64-bit arena. Intel has created the Itanium that basically does away with old x86 scheme.  AMD’s offering is to extend x86 32bit into 64 bits. It is basically a case of scrapping or extending.  There are rumors that Intel is developing its own extensions to IA-32 to combat AMD’s x86-64 initiative. CPU If this is true then it is likely in response to fear that AMD’s Hammer series will gain in popularity because it requires no recompiles for screaming performance-- but it will operate even faster if programs are recompiled.

It wasn’t like Itanium and Hammer were both neck and neck at the finish line – Itanium beat Hammer by a mile, but no one was at the finish line to slap Itanium on the back. I Itanium were released on schedule, it would have been a marvel, but its several year  delay coupled with already obsolete performance have made it a big yawn in the PC industry. That doesn’t bode well for the IA64 series.  Usually, your flagship product achieves some level of market acceptance, then you build on that. For example, you probably aren’t going to be able to see The Postman II in movie theaters any time soon. Given that Itanium has not been successful – either economically or technologically - it is difficult for Intel to continue the series.


Microsoft’s Dilemma

Here is a real possible future: AMD’s 64 bit extensions are accepted in the PC industry. There, I said it.  Ok, now what does this mean? First, Microsoft has to develop a version of Windows that specifically supports these extensions [and there are rumors that this is happening right now – that is why Jerry Sanders has been so friendly with MS lately].  If Intel develops an incompatible x86-64-like instruction set, does that mean Microsoft makes two versions of XP or one version that supports both?  I believe that depends on whether Intel’s proprietary 64-bit CPUs gain market acceptance.  In that case, Microsoft might produce an XP 64-bit version for AMD and another for Intel.

If Intel produces its own x86-64-like CPU, then Microsoft will be in an interesting position.  There are already three flavors of XP: Home, Regular, and Professional. If Intel produces two 64-bit derivatives, and AMD one – which are all incompatible – does that mean Microsoft would have three new 64-bit versions of the Home, Regular, and Professional, resulting in nine new versions of XP, just to support the new 64-bit CPUs?  I think not. Distribution and support of four different builds would pose headaches: x86-32, AMD’s x86-64, Intel’s  IA64 bit, and an Intel pseudo x86-64.

Likely, Microsoft do all three 64-bit OSs, but they might only offer one version to each to keep their SKUs down. The downside is that people with one CPU will be paying for a multi-CPU OS.

Intel Forced to Adopt AMD’s x86-64 extensions?

Even if Intel tries to push a proprietary and incompatible x86-64 rip-off, there is another possibility that would seem remote [actually, this is the most likely scenario and is what has been rumored with Yamhill], but still within the realm of possibility: Intel is forced to adopt AMD’s 64 bit extensions. Don’t get me wrong, Intel wouldn’t do this unless they were forced to do so.  Likely, many of the conditions that would need to exist for that to happen.

  1.  AMD’s Hammer is so fast that Intel has nothing to compete with it in the 64 bit arena.

    a. If this is the case, x86 acceptance will increase.


  2.  Market rejection of Intel’s x86-64 extensions and/or Itanium proprietary 64-bit extension. This might happened because

    a. Intel is too little, too late to the x86-64 bit extension game; Causing developers to not support it.


  3. Microsoft produces separate operating systems for Itanium, AMD x86-64, and Intel x86-64

    a. Developers must decide which one to support.  This depends on 1 & 2. #2 feeds itself.


  4.  I cringe to rumor monger, but there have been some interesting ones that the following will support Hammer:

a. Apple’s OSX

b. Sun

c. (Dare I say it?) Amiga

d. Mine (VIA would likely support AMD’s extensions if at least somewhat popular)



Developer’s Dilemma

I think that developers will have to do extra coding to support these new CPUs. It might be like the pre-DirectX days, when developers had to decide which sound card and which video card they supported. No or little support meant death for your product, no matter how good it might be technologically.


Final Words

Keep in mind that AMD and Intel have undisclosed cross-licensing agreements that could very well allow both of them to become compatible with each other’s x86-64 bit solutions.  Make no mistake, the gorilla and the virtual gorilla are in a standards war and each would love to force the other to conform to their standard. Having to adopt the other standard might not be technologically possible, but might become an economic necessity.  With AMD on the verge of releasing Hammer, it appears they have the upper hand, but Intel’s marketing might and vast resources might be enough for a come-from-behind victory. Either way, this is a great spectator sport.  The CPU wars have been very good since the release of the Athlon, but we are now approaching the Super Bowl of contests: Dominance in the 64-bit arena.


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