A brief history of chip fibs, flops: Intel, IBM, AMD

Even the biggest chip companies churn out their share of flops. But the hype that surrounds these chips is more fascinating than the failures.

Updated at 3:45 p.m. PST with correction of Motorola, IBM executives' names.

Even the biggest chip companies churn out their share of flops. But the hype that surrounds these chips is more fascinating than the failures.

It's been almost a year since I posted A brief history of chip hype--and flops (part 1). Consider this Part 2.

First, I have to revisit Intel's Itanium. Simply because it's still around and still missing production target dates.

Intel's Itanium has been relegated to obscurity if not practical oblivion
Intel's Itanium has been relegated to obscurity if not practical oblivion Intel

The hype: "This design philosophy will one day replace RISC and CISC. It is a gateway into the 64-bit future." This copy was, at one time, posted on Hewlett-Packard's Web site. And analysts were drinking the Kool-Aid too. "I expect Itanium to replace Xeon, but not until 2003," one analyst said back in 2001. (Xeon is Intel's successful, lucrative line of server processors that doesn't include Itanium.)

The reality: Yes, Itanium is still warm, still breathing in the rarefied very-high-end server market--where it does have a limited role. But its architecture will never live in a desktop or laptop or even 99 percent of the servers as once thought. And it certainly hasn't remade the computer industry. And it is still chronically late. This time it's Tukwila that's tardy. The quad-core version of Itanium is late because Intel had to make "some engineering enhancements to the Tukwila platform," according to an Intel statement earlier this month. I can only guess that one day Intel will finally let this failed research project go cold and die quietly.

IBM's original PowerPC platform never lived up to the hype. Even when Motorola and IBM processors populated Apple computers.

The hype: "The PowerPC G5 changes all the rules. This 64-bit race car is the heart of our new Power Mac G5, now the world's fastest desktop computer," said Apple CEO Steve Jobs back in 2003. Jobs, a master of hype (also referred to as a Svengali-like reality-distortion field), continued with this precious quote. "IBM offers the most advanced processor design...and this is just the beginning of a long and productive relationship." (Emphasis added.)

The reality: Apple dumped IBM, Motorola, and the PowerPC in 2005 and it was revealed later that the Mac operating system had been leading "a secret double life" for about five years. But the PowerPC platform had really failed long before 2005. Look no further than these comments from an IBM marketing manager in this 1997 Electronic News article: "Many business school case histories will be written about this failure," Jesse Parker, marketing manager at IBM Micro, said at that time. "No one of the three companies involved in PowerPC executed on their plans. IBM didn't. Motorola didn't. And Apple didn't," he said.

The original PowerPC project was conceived by John Sculley, president and CEO of Apple, and Jack Kuehler, vice chairman of IBM. Phil Hester, an IBM manager at the time, and David Mothersole, a Motorola executive, where also instrumental in starting the project, known initially as "Somerset." But as the PowerPC came to market, Mr. Sculley was pushed out of Apple (and) Mr. Kuehler retired. Their replacements did not have the same enthusiasm for the PowerPC alliance, dooming the project.

In short, the PowerPC failed to challenge Intel in the PC market in a big way. (Though it has been reincarnated as IBM's Cell processor that powers Sony's PlayStation and the architecture still powers IBM servers.)

And I have my own vignette to relate that illustrates one reason why Apple eventually dropped the PowerPC. When Apple first began to crow about the dual-processor Power Mac (circa 2003), a neighbor of mine at the time bought into the hype and purchased an Apple Power Mac tower with two IBM G4 processors (this preceded the dual-processor G5 tower that followed soon after). This thing was a furnace. It quite literally raised the temperature in the room it was in, had about five fans too many, and was deafening, to boot. That was the first time I fully understood the magnitude of Apple's fabrications about IBM's "superior" PowerPC designs. (IBM's less-than-impressive--at that time--chip manufacturing process that was used for PowerPC processors also contributed to the problem.)

AMD Puma
Lastly, turning to Advanced Micro Devices, I'll try to look beyond the botched Barcelona launch in September of 2007 (as I've already covered this in Part 1) and focus instead on AMD's mobile "Puma" platform. Though I can't leave Barcelona entirely out of the discussion because there are some disturbing parallels. (Note: AMD's upcoming Yukon and Congo platforms offer some hope for mobile redemption.)

The hype: Like Barcelona, AMD had too much to say about Puma too long before it was real. AMD started pumping Puma back in April 2007 when the company did one of its many (infamous) soft launches (a PR strategy that it has thankfully ditched). This prompted some editorializing from me as well as other publications. "It is questionable whether...Puma will meet the hype AMD is currently trying to generate though these early announcements," according to a rare editorial from DigiTimes in 2007.

Things got even more dicey at the financial analyst day in December 2007 when AMD said Puma would be delayed until the second quarter of 2008.

It's not so much that Puma (aka Turion X2 Ultra coupled with ATI graphics) is a failure of epic proportions like Itanium, it's that the CPU component (separate from the ATI GPU component) fell so far short of the long, ballyhooed build-up it got.

And it is beaten consistently by Intel in the mobile marketplace. Here's an October 2008 CNET review of laptops with AMD's Turion X2 Ultra. "Turning to AMD's 2.0GHz Turion X2 Dual-Core RM-70 CPU might be an option if you're looking to keep costs down and have only basic computing needs," the review said. "The Acer Aspire 5735-4624 costs only $499 and uses a 2.0GHz Intel Pentium Dual Core T3200; it completed our multitasking benchmark test in one-third the time the HP G60 did. The HP G60 wasn't the last-place performer in our mainstream midprice holiday retail laptop roundup. That dubious distinction goes to the Toshiba Satellite L355D-S7825, also an AMD-powered system."

And there are more unfavorable comparisons. This review at Hexus.net of a Toshiba Satellite 300D with AMD Turion X2 Ultra ZM-80 said the Turion X2 Ultra CPU was "found wanting when compared to Centrino 2." The one bright spot was the ATI Mobility Radeon HD 3650 graphics card--but this speaks more about solid ATI technology than AMD's shaky Turion processor.

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