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Intel has bug-repair program

The chip giant confirms that it has been operating a special bug-repair program for its chips on a limited basis for some time.

Intel (INTC) confirmed today that it has been operating a special bug-repair program for its chips on a limited basis for some time.

Under the program, some PC manufacturers, computer resellers, and dealers that do business with Intel have access to a password-protected Web site where they can download a software "utility" to fix some bugs in the Pentium Pro and Pentium II processors.

Intel confirmed that the utility is used by a very select number of PC makers and dealers, including system integrators, for preparing new computers for sale. Now, the company is holding out the possibility of making this available to more people.

"What is currently being studied is the viability of making this more broadly implementable," Intel spokesman Bill Miller said. Intel, however, would not specify what these plans are.

Fixing bugs is a critical issue for the chip giant because its processors are in more than 80 percent of the personal computers sold worldwide. The company is shipping close to 100 million chips a year.

In general, bug repair is a costly and complex logistical undertaking, but Intel is trying to streamline this. Two infamous precedents give Intel ample reason to come up with a more efficient process for fixing chip problems: the Pentium "floating point" bug of 1994, which cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars, and the more recent Pentium II flaw.

Intel publishes a list of bugs, referred to as "errata," which exist in all of its processors. These bugs can usually be corrected with software patches, but there are exceptions. In the floating-point bug case, Intel instituted a recall and offered to replace, outright, buggy processors.

"The capability does exist to upgrade [processor software]," Miller said today, adding that this ability can be used to fix bugs. This is the first time Intel has publicly confirmed the existence of this capability.

First reports of a bug fix surfaced late last month when Electronic Engineering Times, an industry publication, reported that Intel was preparing technology to expedite the repair of bugs in its processors. However, Intel is now saying publicly that this already exists, at least on a limited basis.

"It's available to [dealers and PC makers] only via Intel's private Web site for resellers. It is not currently available to the end consumer," one customer told CNET's NEWS.COM. Companies must first receive special "training" before getting access to the privileged bug-fixing site.

The software utility updates a processor's microcode, special software that controls how a processor operates. By updating the microcode, certain processor bugs can be eradicated.

It is unclear how the program could be expanded or who might be eligible for access to the bug-repair site.

One possibility is to make the software utility more readily available to technically qualified people in the computer industry, an industry source said. Another is to make it available to general PC users, though this solution may be more problematic because these software fixes are so complex, according to industry sources.

Currently, there are many variables that a user of this software must be aware of, including which version (or "stepping") the processor is, what type of circuit board is in the computer, and what version of special "BIOS" software is present.

Intel is exploring technology that would obviate the need to know all of these variables and therefore make it available for many more users, according to industry sources.

But sources caution that this will not fix all bugs. "This will never be a complete inoculation from all problems," a source said, adding that Intel intends to proceed with extreme caution on this technology and will not tout this as a be-all, end-all solution.

(Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.)