A furious battle between Intel and its triad of competitors - AMD, Cyrix and Centaur IDT - is set to herald the 1998 chip wars with the three makers of clone processors uniting to form a technical alliance against the giant. A senior AMD executive, responding to a distributor's complaints, said this week that Cyrix, his company and fellow clone maker Centaur-IDT are well down the line towards a common front on their microprocessors, expected to be announced this month based on the Socket 7 interface - which Intel had planned to kill off. Ever since Intel started pushing it's new Slot 1 interface for high-speed Pentium II chips, the future of the pervasive Socket 7 interface has looked bleak. Sukh Rayat, a director of UK chip distributor Flashpoint, said that his customers - all dealers - did not want to run two lines of motherboards and microprocessors. He said that the situation reminded him of when Nexgen, since acquired by AMD, sold an advanced chip and motherboard which was, however, non-standard. Despite its speed and undoubted technical performance, said Rayat, the difference between it and the Intel self-professed standard, meant that dealers were reluctant to install it in machines they sold. Rayat called for all three of the clone chip manufacturers to get together and to offer a common front against the giant of chip technology. David Frink, vice president of corporate communications at AMD US, said: "We're very well down the path to working with both Cyrix and Centaur-IDT on a standard specification for Socket 7. That is likely to arrive early in 1998." He claimed that the large OEMs AMD was talking to were encouraged by the persistence of Socket 7 and despite Rayat's doubts, that meant a good future for the K6 and the other alternatives to the Intel flavours.
He said: "There's going to be a market for 100 million units (CPUs) in 1998 and even Intel can't hope to pump that amount out." That will lead, he suggested, to the Intel alternatives gaining a market share that would satisfy the companies' shareholders. Nor, said Frink, was AMD phased by the price cuts that Intel has heralded for the end of last month and the end of January. He said: "We do expect some lower pricing to be announced on 1 February." He maintained that AMD is sticking by its policy of consistently undercutting Intel by 10%, whenever it made its quarterly price cuts, and said that its business plans showed that it could do that. He claimed if Intel starts attempting the same type of undercutting its business plan would go awry. Joe D'Elia, senior semiconductor analyst at Dataquest UK, confirmed that the next few months would be the crunch time for the battle to save Socket 7. He said:"The first four months of this year will make or break Socket 7. The key to Socket 7 is whether AMD, Cyrix and IDT can keep it alive and work towards a common goal. AMD is extending the performance of Socket 7 and all of the others have to sign up to that. They've all been talking but it appears no one has yet made the final commitment." He said the three companies needed to commit to one common Socket 7 standard and agreed that dealers wanted one product, never mind three or four. Said D'Elia: "Whichever way AMD and Cyrix decide to go, there will be some bruised egos. Maybe they'll have to do some backing down and (all three) have to produce a standard that work together." Although National Semiconductor, which took over Cyrix last year, had a cross-licensing deal with Intel, D'Elia discounted that that could apply to the mechanical Slot One architecture which Intel has pushed in the Pentium II. He said: "National has some type of cross-licensing deal which involves very old Intel technologies. Both Cyrix and National pooh-poohed such an idea when the merger took place. If they had it, and it was usable, they'd be shouting 'up yours' at AMD because they would have a Pentium compatible device." He added: "Cyrix is focusing on high-integration stuff." In AMD's case, said D'Elia, it had to start producing K6s in volume to last through 1998. He said: "The biggest issue with AMD is they haven't been able to deliver the product. It's a good thing they haven't had a Compaq up until now, because they would have had to serve them alone." Yet Rayat thought that there was another situation on the cards. He speculated that the rumours are coming thick and fast that IBM is readying itself to buy the CPU part of AMD, so leaving the organisation to concentrate on its core business. Neither IBM nor AMD was prepared to comment. One thing is certain, however, those that found Intel's Slot One architecture an arrogant attempt to monopolise the chip game may look forward to Socket 7 surviving for years to come for sure, if only the three minor chip players can put differences aside and make this alliance work.
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