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The week in review: Chip wars

The battle of the processor giants heated up with innovations designed to boost performance--another bone of contention, as new benchmark tests revealed no clear champion.

Chipmakers are pushing processors that are smaller, faster and more technologically sophisticated, heating up a competitive struggle that shows no signs of a clear-cut victor.

With the unveiling of its Athlon XP processor for PCs, Advanced Micro Devices boasted that the Athlon XP 1800+ chip outperforms Intel's 2GHz Pentium 4 chip, even though the XP 1800+ runs at 1.53GHz. Yet testers are still divided and say performance depends on the application.

Some testers said the Athlon XP outperformed the 2GHz Pentium 4. However, the 2GHz Pentium 4 showed higher performance on tests related to 3D graphics, such as some involving the game "Quake 3." But the Athlon XP 1800+ excelled at productivity applications, such as word processing and e-mail.

In related news, sources say Intel won't release another version of the Pentium 4 until early 2002--a boon for AMD. "Northwood," a 2.2GHz Pentium 4 based on the 130-nanometer (0.13-micron) manufacturing process, will come out commercially in the first part of 2002. The new date isn't because of manufacturing problems; Intel is trying to avoid potential glitches during the holiday-shopping season.

Chip design is also an important element in winning the processor wars. Intel this week unveiled a new design for the silicon and metal vehicles that connect a microprocessor to the rest of a computer. Intel says that the breakthrough will play an essential role in allowing processing power to grow. For instance, five years from now, microprocessors will run at 20GHz; they'll need to issue and receive a vast amount of signals and will require a high infusion of electricity. The packaging will essentially channel all that traffic through an extremely thin web of interconnections--tiny wires that link chip circuits--surrounding the chip.

In that same power-saving vein, IBM is coming out with a new line of PowerPC chips that will consume less power by shutting down parts of the chip that aren't in use. The PowerPC 405LP will contain circuitry that will turn sections of the processor off and on as needed.

Combined with existing power-management features such as silicon-on-insulator technology and copper wiring, the new on-off features could lead to a chip that uses one-tenth as much power as predecessors. The chip, which will come out next year, also contains integrated functions for performing data encryption and voice recognition.

ISPs in peril
Internet service providers are fighting for their very survival.

Financially troubled broadband provider Excite@Home stopped accepting new subscribers, citing the bankrupt company's need to conserve cash. Excite@Home, the leading provider of broadband Internet access, with nearly 4 million customers, recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and negotiated a deal to sell its high-speed network to AT&T for $307 million in cash.

A wireless Internet service provider for dozens of hotels and hundreds of Starbucks outlets has begun shutting down portions of its network. MobileStar Network also laid off 88 workers, and hired the Diablo Management Group to "oversee an orderly sale of the assets," according to sources.

One ISP is battling its own customers. British ISP Telewest is cutting off Internet access to customers who have refused to patch their computers against the Nimda worm or have left infected PCs running. The company insists that these are "sensible" measures to protect customers from malicious worms that are able to self-propagate across networks without user intervention.

Restless in Redmond
Customer complaints this week forced Microsoft to revise the deadline for a controversial software-licensing plan. Companies now have until July 31, 2002--rather than Feb. 28, 2002--to enter Microsoft's Software Assurance licensing program, which will eliminate some discounts and raise software prices for some of Microsoft's business customers. Microsoft also said customers will no longer be required to upgrade to Office XP to qualify for the Software Assurance plan, which is intended to move Microsoft's customers to a long-term licensing model.

It's the second major change for the program. Last week, Microsoft relaxed another controversial licensing restriction, on a practice known as "reimaging."

Consumers are just getting their first look at Windows XP, but that hasn't stopped Microsoft from preparing the first major update of the new operating system. Starting Oct. 25, Microsoft plans to make available an upgrade to Windows Messenger, the communications console delivering instant messaging, videoconferencing and Internet phone calling, among other features.

The enhanced version of Windows Messenger offers new features kept under wraps during XP's development, including the first clear ties to Microsoft's forthcoming .Net software-as-a-service strategy. Microsoft is under pressure to come out with an operating system with upgrades compelling enough to get people to upgrade their PCs.

In other Microsoft news, the Supreme Court rejected the company's request that it hear an appeal of Microsoft's antitrust case. The company had appealed not on the merits of the case but because of comments that U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson had made to the media.

Microsoft made the request for appeal in May, arguing that statements Jackson made behind closed doors to the media warranted throwing out his two-part ruling. Jackson, whom the Court of Appeals removed from the case, started holding the meetings about two months before issuing his scathing findings of fact in November 1999.

E-mail turns 30
A simple message sent in fall of 1971 launched a revolution in the history of human communications. That dispatch is now considered the first e-mail to have been sent from one computer to another through a network. Devised by scientist Ray Tomlinson, the system for sending e-mail was initially a demonstration of what the ARPAnet--the Internet's precursor--could do.

Now, powerful new developments such as wireless networks, broadband for the masses and instant messaging are sweeping the world toward a second great communications upheaval. Nevertheless, many compare e-mail to such inventions as the printing press, the telegraph and the telephone.

With the 30th anniversary of e-mail, technology executives, venture capitalists, poets and the White House offered CNET News.com readers their views on the significance of the medium.

Also of note
Network-security professionals supported the Bush administration's idea of a separate government Internet but stressed that security on such a network will be elusive...Retail sales of PCs in August and September were down 30 percent or more year over year...Although it is No. 1 in sales of add-on CD-rewritable drives, Hewlett-Packard is exiting that market so it can better concentrate on the emerging, and potentially more profitable, demand for recordable DVD drives.

Want more? Check out all this week's News.com headlines.