That company is in the final stages of negotiating a deal that will allow it to manufacture a chipset that links Intel's Pentium 4 processor with Rambus-based RDRAM memory, according to several industry sources. The announcement is expected to take place within the next two weeks.
The advent of a manufacturer besides Intel offering a Rambus chipset would likely be seen as a shot in the arm for controversial chip designer Rambus. A chipset connects a PC's processor with other components, such as memory.
RDRAM is currently the only memory that comes inside Pentium 4 computers. Although it provides a performance boost, it is also more expensive than regular memory, making customers reluctant to embrace it. In addition, PC makers are skittish; in 1999 and 2000, they were stung by problems with a Pentium III-Rambus chipset.
To date, Intel is the only manufacturer to release a Pentium 4-Rambus chipset. Another supplier would likely increase the availability of chipsets and lower the price of building computers.
Because of the cost associated with RDRAM and other factors, PC makers are relying on new chipsets to start manufacturing Pentium 4 PCs with cheaper SDRAM, the standard PC memory on the market today. Intel will come out with just such a chipset, the 845, in the first half of September, followed by one that combines the Pentium 4 with faster DDR DRAM. Dell Computer and Gateway, among others, plan to adopt the new SDRAM chipset right away.
September is key
September in many ways will likely be a crucial month for Rambus. PC executives and analysts have predicted that Pentium 4-SDRAM computers could end up selling for $50 to $150 less than their Pentium 4-RDRAM counterparts, depending on the configuration, because of cheaper memory and motherboards.
Some analysts were surprised at the prospect of another Rambus chipset. "It (Rambus) is a sunset industry," said Ashok Kumar, an analyst at US Bancorp Piper Jaffray. "I don't know what the market opportunity is."
Corporate customers are also expected to snap up the Pentium 4-SDRAM systems.
"SDRAM is what they are desiring," said Jeff Austin, a marketing manager for Intel. Corporate buyers have been reluctant to embrace RDAM because, as with all new technologies, "they want to see it adopted somewhere else first," he said.
By contrast, Tom Quinn, vice president of marketing at Samsung, said that the price difference between PCs with RDRAM and those with SDRAM will be relatively small, especially when compared with overall PC prices. Although SDRAM has been dropping in price, so has the Rambus memory. Pentium 4-RDRAM computers will also provide more performance.
"How is the market going to react to (Pentium 4/845) systems?" Quinn said. "The difference in cost will be less than the sales tax."
Both Intel and Rambus declined to comment on any upcoming third-party chipsets. An Intel representative said that three companies currently have licenses to manufacture Pentium 4 chipsets: Acer Labs, SiS and ATI Technologies. These companies are all expected to come out with Pentium 4-SDRAM chipsets.
A Rambus representative said that Acer also has a Rambus license.