A brief history of chip hype--and flops (part 1)

This first installment in a series about silicon gone sour takes a look back at the Cyrix M1 and Intel's Itanium, as well as today's Barcelona from AMD.

The biggest flops flop big because of hype. Supposedly sure bets get massively pumped up, then poop out fast. Ishtar couldn't lose with Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty, but it lost Columbia Pictures $40 million. Heaven's Gate was an "epic film" that lost $44 million, forcing Transamerica to sell off United Artists.

Boondoggled technology can be even more of a financial disaster, marketed year after year, at great expense, until one day the company either pulls the plug or relegates it to practical oblivion. With this in mind, I have come up with a few chips that have been hyped far beyond what was delivered. Some are still in the process of flopping (but may ultimately redeem themselves, somehow, as 20th Century Fox's Cleopatra did).

Cyrix 5x86 "M1" processor
Cyrix 5x86 "M1" processor Photographer: Dirk Oppelt

First, a short preface. A post was brought to my attention a few weeks ago. The point was essentially this: A decade or so ago, Cyrix's M1 and M2 processors were hyped as the fastest, most powerful chips when they were really no such thing. Reality caught up with the hype, and, to use the author's own words, "Cyrix imploded and National Semiconductor blew I-don't-know-how-many-billion dollars cleaning up the mess."

The author also implies that the press too often buys the hype. Let's see. When I'm faced, for example, with a new chip that looks like a dog, I don't write something the next day saying so. Even if the company's marketing department is knowingly putting lipstick on the dog (or the pig, take your choice) I won't necessarily know this right away. So, I give them the benefit of the doubt. Until I know otherwise of course.

This is best illustrated by, not coincidentally, the Cyrix M1 processor. When I covered Cyrix, I'm sure I wrote stories overstating the threat the M1 posed to Intel. But it didn't take long to figure out that the M1 was not what Cyrix said it was. The moment of truth happened at a San Francisco chip conference. The die for the M1 had recently been released. And it was big. As in oversize. I remember discussing this with a chip analyst and while the exact phraseology escapes me, I believe concepts such "big" and "hot" and "waffle iron" were bandied about. My reaction was this: OK, so the marketing is fraudulent. But the company is small and they seem to be struggling. Plus, they do have one large customer planning to use their chips (why, I don't know) but I won't write a piece tomorrow slamming the waffle-iron-size die, I just won't take them seriously anymore.

So, how many M1s have come and gone over the years? And how many are out there now? That's what I will try to address here, the first of a series of posts focusing on flops. With one very important disclaimer: This is opinion, and opinion only.

Cyrix M1/M2: In addition to what is stated above, let me say this: Even back in the mid-'90s when I didn't know how bad the M2 (the successor to the M1) would be, I would have never purchased a computer with a Cyrix processor no matter how inexpensive. Why? Simple, the chips were slow.

The Intel Itanium : The hype: "This design...will one day replace RISC and CISC. It is a gateway into the 64-bit future" or "I expect Itanium to replace Xeon, but not until 2003." The reality: Development took place over 11 years, from 1989 to 2001. Despite this, when it was released it was not competitive. Not many were sold (some claim only a few thousand original Itaniums) because of relatively poor performance, in addition to poor yields and high cost. Then the other shoe dropped with Itanium 2. In September 2005, Dell said it would phase out its remaining models based on the Itanium--"another sign of the waning interest in a chip that cost an estimated several billion dollars to develop" (The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 15, 2005). In short, AMD's Opteron was a lot better.

The original version of the "Barcelona" quad-core Opteron: This is a work in progress so I don't want to be too harsh. Barcelona may ultimately succeed as the B3 stepping is adopted over the coming months. So here I will simply focus on the initial hype. The hype: "Barcelona doesn't get us back in the game (with Intel), it puts us in a leadership position" (CEO Hector Ruiz, Sept. 10, 2007). The reality: the chip was announced in September but systems (as of March 6, 2008) have yet to appear from Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Dell, or Sun.

Let's be perfectly frank: the hype surrounding Barcelona before it came out was nothing short of scandalous. Better, faster, more innovative. Let me paraphrase AMD's marketing: the Barcelona is a native quad-core design as opposed to Intel's kludgy chip that cobbles together two dual-core die. Barcelona has an on-die memory controller, Intel does not... I'll stop there. (If you want more, go to AMD's Web site.)

Advice for AMD: Hold the superlatives. First deliver in quantity the actual, viable physical chip that's supposed to do all these things better than the shipping Intel chip (shipping since October 2006). The adage "talk is cheap" has special meaning to journalists. And, I would imagine, special meaning to AMD's waiting customers.

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