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Intel changes the subject

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper says Intel has cleverly moved the debate away from pure clock speed, which could hurt AMD.

One block from Intel's big developer show in San Francisco this week, I came across a street booth handing out free coffee and pastries to show-goers--courtesy of the folks at Advanced Micro Devices.

As gimmicks go, it's hardly as memorable as the fall Comdex a decade ago when one software developer decided to dress up some of its booth babes in the scantiest of tiger suits.

Still, it sufficed to remind the multitude of geeks and press types in attendance that there is an alternative view of the computing universe.

No secret why AMD's feeling spunky. For most of its decades-long competition with Intel, the company kept winding up with the short end of the stick. But now AMD is basking in its reputation as the technology trendsetter. Beating its bigger rival to the market with 64-bit technology, AMD also won over important segments of the tech cognoscenti on the strength of its Athlon and Opteron chip designs.

The company's also pushed Intel into a PR corner, accusing it of being a predatory monopolist. If the company's lawyers can make the charges in its lawsuit hold up in court, it's anybody's guess what the courts would do. (Had it not been for the reversal ordered by an appellate court, Microsoft, the other half of the Wintel duopoly, would have been busted up by Thomas Penfield Jackson, the judge overseeing the government's antitrust case against the software company.)

AMD needs to go all out in coming weeks to disabuse the notion that the speed race is over and the power race has begun.
In a bid to steal some of Intel's thunder as the week began, AMD took out newspaper ads around the country, challenging its bigger rival to a "dual-core duel." Intel dismissed the challenge as a publicity stunt--which it was--but it was clever. I'd grab a seat. So would a lot of IT managers whose job it is to choose the best products for their companies. The prospect of a public bake-off would be great theater.

But so much for the guerilla theater. While AMD made the most of the current opportunity, Intel also made clear it expects next year will be a lot different. The company's general manager, Pat Gelsinger, went so far as to guarantee Intel would command "absolute leadership in the marketplace" in 2006.

Nobody's ever going to confuse Gelsinger's guarantee with Joe Namath's. But the company has its dander up and AMD's success has only sharpened the edge.

So it is that Intel next year plans a barrage of microprocessor releases that feature lower power consumption, more security against worms and better power management. Get ready for a huge advertising campaign where Intel plays up the energy savings and extra battery life.

Moving the debate away from pure clock speed is a clever marketing move, one that plays to Intel's advantages. It might also be an idea whose time as come. The numbers crunchers, the rocket scientists and the early adopters will still demand the latest unit off the production line. But most computer users already have enough processing speed to do their jobs.

My hunch is that more people will list items like low heat and power consumption higher as priorities. AMD needs to go all out in coming weeks to disabuse the notion that the speed race is over and the power race has begun--or else come up with a technology response before Intel ships its next generation of products.

If AMD fails that challenge, then Intel's latest gambit may wind up being recalled as one of its more brilliant moments.