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Intel bows to Rambus concerns

The chip giant says that because of requests from PC makers and memory manufacturers, it will explore an option to the Rambus technology.

Rambus seems to have lost its exclusive claim on Intel's plans for computer memory.

The chipmaking giant today bowed to requests from PC makers and memory manufacturers and said it may release a chipset in the first half of 2000 that will function with a faster version of the memory currently found in most computers.

Until now, Intel has maintained that it would jump from supporting the current memory standard to the more costly and somewhat controversial memory designed around the Rambus architecture, without an intervening step. The chipset serves as a communication bridge between the processor and memory; hence, chipsets determine the kind of memory a given PC can handle.

Intel has designated Rambus for high-end computers, but the relatively high manufacturing and royalty costs have caused some backlash within the industry.

If Intel follows through with its chipset plan, the decision will likely mean a slower proliferation of Rambus memory in the marketplace. Memory makers and PC makers, who have groaned about the cost of Rambus memory for months, may put less emphasis on Rambus in 2000.

Consumers and businesses in turn will see fewer PCs with Rambus technology on shelves. Such a shift won't be fatal to Rambus, say observers, but it's not welcome news.

Leaping from current memory to Rambus has proved difficult for memory makers, said Pete MacWilliams, an Intel fellow. After memory prices collapsed again in the first part of 1999, manufacturers de-emphasized their investment in equipment to make Rambus memory.

The curtailing of factory investments in turn clouded the outlook for the supply of Rambus memory. Earlier, both Intel and memory makers had difficulty in ironing out bugs in memory chips and the corresponding chipset.

The memory market "isn't as bullish as it was six months ago," said MacWilliams. "If the second half of 1998 had persisted in the first half of 1999, they willingness of DRAM vendors would be much higher." DRAM stands for dynamic random access memory.

Meanwhile, most manufacturers say they are having a relatively easy time cranking out "PC 133" memory, a version of today's 100-MHz SDRAM that is 33 percent faster.

"The DRAM vendors are telling us it is pretty straightforward. Technically, the are pretty confident that they can build it," he said.

Under the current Intel product road map, Intel will release an 820 chipset, code-named Camino, in September. The chipset will work with Rambus or, with the addition of another chip called the MTH, standard 100-MHz SDRAM memory. The 820 chipset also allows PC makers for the first time to adopt the next generation of the Accelerated Graphics Port, or AGP, a dedicated data path that improves graphics performance.

In the meantime, Intel will explore the ability of memory makers to produce 133-MHz SDRAM. Intel may come out with a chipset by the first half of next year.

In all probability, Intel will release a PC 133 chipset, said Dean McCarron, principal at Mercury Research.

"Their customers have a number of legitimate concerns. The more alternatives Intel offers, the more comfortable they are," he said.

"I don't think it's any sort of indictment against Rambus as a technology or as a company. It's a more of a comment on the less-than-stellar stability of supply."

Intel's interim step could impact others in the market. One of the secondary marketing pitches forming around AMD's Athlon processor is that it provides high performance and does not have to work with Rambus.

Via Technologies, meanwhile, could encounter more competition. Currently, Via has the only chipset that can communicate between an Intel processor and PC 133 memory. Several "motherboard" makers have shown off demonstration products using the Via chipset.