Analysts say Intel proposal could split PC industry

Intel executives are calling for a dramatic overhaul in the innards of PCs, but analysts fear the chipmaker's new technology could split the industry.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
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Stephen Shankland
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SAN JOSE, Calif.--Intel executives are calling for a dramatic overhaul in the innards of PCs, but analysts fear the chipmaker's new technology could split the industry.

The as-yet-unnamed new technology will supplant the existing PCI (Peripheral Component Interconnect) data pathway for accommodating devices such as sound cards and network cards, Louis Burns, general manager of Intel's desktop platforms group, said Thursday. Intel will deliver a preliminary description of the technology this fall.

The new technology is important because it would require not only PC makers to redesign their systems from the ground up, but also any company making hardware that plugs into a PC. Still, Burns said, it's critical to have a technology that can keep up with the speed improvements in CPUs coming in the next 10 years.

"It's time for the next-generation input-output architecture," he said. "We as an industry need to get very busy quickly to define that platform that will last another 10 years."

This isn't the first time Intel has tried to create a successor to PCI, and some industry observers assert that Intel could run into some familiar problems trying to get other companies to adopt its ideas.

"I'm disturbed by the timing," said Peter Glaskowsky, an analyst at MicroDesign Resources. "It's obvious they've made all their big decisions already. They're trying to assert a specification, not a standard, because a standard is getting people to develop it cooperatively and agree to it."

Intel insists it's working with other companies on the effort. "This is not a standard we have already in a document we're going to hand out," Burns said. "We will work with the industry. This is a public standard."

Intel spokesman George Alfs said the company has been working on the standard for a few months and has begun discussing it with some computer manufacturers.

Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64, said he fears there's already some industry support behind another standard called HyperTransport from Intel rival Advanced Micro Devices.

"There's a lot of momentum in the industry behind HyperTransport," he said, pointing to its royalty-free design and support from Compaq Computer and Cisco Systems. "I'd prefer to see all the parties come together" to avoid confusion among designers and buyers, he said.

Burns dismissed HyperTransport as a mere "point solution" that won't be useful long enough.

The first time Intel tried to create PCI's successor it was called NGIO (Next-Generation Input/Output), but IBM, Compaq and Hewlett-Packard preferred a competing standard of their own.

After months of wrangling, the two factions agreed on a compromise that now goes by the name InfiniBand.

Burns and colleague Mike Fister, general manager of the enterprise platforms group, denied that the specification they proposed Thursday is a second crack at NGIO. The differences are that InfiniBand and NGIO are designed for servers, whereas this new standard is aimed at ordinary desktop computers. Also, InfiniBand is designed to connect computers, but the new standard is designed to connect components within a computer.

Glaskowsky sees similarities, though. "This has such an overlap with InfiniBand that I can't imagine it would be very smart to keep both separate," he said.

Burns and Fister outlined a host of other new technological developments coming for Intel-based PCs and servers in a keynote speech Thursday at the Intel Developer Forum here.

Burns emphasized wireless capabilities, saying that the technology soon will be a standard part of all PCs. "In the next two years, wireless will be a native part of every Intel chipset shipped in the world," Burns said. Chipsets are microprocessors that connect the main CPU to other parts of the computer.

In addition, Intel is working on a software "bridge" that would link devices using the IEEE 1394, or FireWire, communication standard and wireless networks using the 802.11b standard. IEEE 1394 is used in video-camera equipment and is expected to spread to stereos and televisions.