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All chip companies are copycats

by on18 March 2008


Column: The voice of IT experience

The similarities
between Intel’s Nehalem and the designs of AMD microprocessors are no coincidence – the grand daddy that spawned these chips is the Alpha microprocessor. This is a CPU that hovers between the living and the dead, and ironically is fabbed by Intel as part of a deal with the FTC made years ago.

There’s plenty of other ironies here. Dirk Meyer, who now holds a senior role at AMD, was part of the team which designed the Alpha in the early 1990s. The Alpha impressed the heck out of Paul Otellini when he was in a senior marketing position at Intel in the late 1990s – this was a chip that performed better in servers than its own Xeons and was owned by Compaq. The CEO of Compaq, Eckhard Pfeiffer, was far from pleased by Intel’s Inside campaign and in the mid 1990s there were many alternatives to the X86 CPU, including the Power PC, Sun’s SPARC chips, and even HP chips, which were fabbed by Intel and which led to the Itanium.

Ah yes, and the division of Motorola which worked on the Power PC was headed up by Hector Ruiz – we’ve all heard of him at AMD, right? Intel and AMD are distorted reflections of each other in the X86 House of Mirrors, which is found in the marketing pavilion of the semiconductor funfair.

We’ve tracked both Intel and AMD for nearly 20 years now and they’re like a divorced couple. They share custody of the X86 family for the sake of the kids, but deeply resent each other. They constantly bicker and snipe, bound together forever by the terms of the X86 divorce settlement imposed by a panel of judges.

They’re also copycats and always have been. In the past, AMD copied Intel designs  and now the boot, possibly temporarily, is on the other foot. Yet the stakes are not as high as they were even just a few years ago – the fanboi phase of the X86 wars is over, the vast majority of people using PCs don’t care which chip is inside their machines as long as it works. The war isn’t over – it’s just turned into a war where AMD makes guerilla strikes into territory regained by Intel.

And perhaps AMD’s last hope is that divine intervention, in the shape of the different court cases and government investigation, will put it in a position where it can do something better than make feeble incursions into X86land’s pocked landscape.

Mike Magee’s bog is at

Last modified on 19 March 2008
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