Intel: Pentium II not easy for Cyrix

Cyrix claims the right to incorporate Intel's Pentium II patents into its chips, but Intel says it has some trade secrets in reserve.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
3 min read
While Cyrix claims it has obtained the right to incorporate Intel's Pentium II patents into its future chips, Intel says that at best these rights will only get Cyrix halfway there.

Crucial technology relating to the Pentium II is protected by trade secret, not patents, Intel spokesman Chuck Mulloy said. Therefore, even if Cyrix can obtain the rights to the patents through its new parent company, National Semiconductor, Cyrix will still lack access to the trade secrets it needs to make a Pentium II.

Intel's counter-statement is the latest salvo in what could turn out to be a highly visible and crucial dispute in the semiconductor industry.

Cyrix has stated that a cross-license between National and Intel gives it the right to make chips based on Pentium II designs--designs that Intel so far has refused to license. If Cyrix proves to be correct, it could open the door to competition in the high-end desktop arena because it will mean that at least one other vendor can make Pentium IIs.

But the crucial technology not covered by the patents regards the system bus, said Mulloy, which is the computer's internal vehicle for transferring data to and from the processor. The Pentium II uses a proprietary system bus called "Slot 1" that differs from the "Socket 7" bus used by the Pentium class chips currently marketed by Cyrix and Advanced Micro Devices.

As a result, computer vendors and motherboard manufacturers have to chose whether to design products for the Pentium II or for other processors. The growing popularity of the Pentium II puts Cyrix and AMD at a competitive disadvantage since they cannot emulate or obtain plans to the Pentium II.

"The [Pentium II] bus is protected by patents and trade secrets," Mulloy said. "Having access to the patents doesn?t give them all the technology."

Linley Gwennap, editor in chief of The Microprocessor Report, agreed, adding that Cyrix would still face a huge design effort to actually come out with a Pentium II-style chip. "There's a lot of stuff out there that Intel doesn't put on its patents," he said.

Gwennap further pointed out that Intel has also been granted overall system patents, that is, patents for circuit boards or other computer features that are necessary to make a computer run on a Pentium II. Intel currently issues additional licensing for components and circuit boards to third-party manufacturers so that they can make Pentium II computers.

Intel, he said, doesn't necessarily have to issue these additional patents to third parties who chose to adopt a Cyrix-made Pentium II-class chip. Intel has actually litigated this issue in court and lost, he added. However, the previous case will not likely be binding. Intel thus could at least slow up Cyrix with a lawsuit.

Richard Belgard, a consultant for MicroDesign Resources, which publishes The Microprocessor Report, said Cyrix could use reverse engineering to replicate the bus. Reverse-engineering results, combined with the license, would then open up an opportunity for the company.

"You can reverse engineer trade secrets and it's not that hard," he said. "If they can determine these trade secrets by reverse engineering, it's a huge market."

Steve Tobak, vice president of corporate marketing at Cyrix, said Wednesday that Cyrix could legally use the patents to make Pentium II chips. While he said Cyrix has not committed to making Pentium II-style chips, the company could start to roll some out in late 1998.