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Intel: A quarter-century of x86

The giant quietly marks the 25th anniversary of x86, the basic architecture behind the chips that power most of today's PCs--chips that have seen more than 1 billion units shipped.

John G. Spooner Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Spooner
covers the PC market, chips and automotive technology.
John G. Spooner
3 min read
Intel on Monday quietly marked the 25-year anniversary of x86, the basic architecture underlying the chips that power most of today's PCs.

Intel's first x86-based chip, the 5MHz 8086, was introduced on June 9, 1978. Earlier this year, the company passed the 1 billion mark for units shipped on x86 processors, a feat that might have been enough to prompt other companies to put up a tent and throw a party.

Not Intel, though. Instead of hosting an event, the chipmaker released a short statement by Pat Gelsinger, its chief technology officer.

Gelsinger said that "the Intel Architecture (otherwise known as x86) has brought the benefits of digital intelligence to people around the world, making it the most successful computer architecture in the history of computing. Best of all, it continues to incorporate new innovations and enable new uses, promising to further transform the world of computing in the years ahead."

The first x86 processor started life as a general-purpose chip, without knowing the grand role it would play in today's PC industry. The turn of events came in 1982, when IBM incorporated a less-expensive version of the chip, dubbed the 8088, into its first IBM Personal Computer, the grandfather of today's PC.

Since then, driven forward by Moore's Law--which states that the number of transistors on a given chip can be doubled every two years--Intel has increased the performance of its x86 chips and diversified its product lines from desktop PCs, to low-power processors for notebooks. It's even launched a line of processors specifically for servers and workstations.

"I'd look at it as: Twenty-five years ago we were presented with an amazing opportunity--some of which I think we created with the initial quality of the Intel Architecture through the 8086 and 8088--and have then spent much of that 25 years maximizing the impact of that opportunity...both for Intel and for the computing world in general," said Frank Spindler, vice president of Intel's Corporate Technology Group.

This year the PC industry is expected to turn out between about 130 million and 140 million desktops, notebooks and servers. The majority of them will be based on Intel processors. They will also incorporate other silicon built by Intel, including chipsets, network controllers and even radio modules for wireless networking.

Although Intel has made many changes to the x86 architecture over the years--increasing the performance and complexity of resulting processors many times over--the underlying architecture has ensured that the chips still act basically the same, a factor that has helped ensure widespread use and a large base of software.

Where the original 5MHz 8086 processor was built with 29,000 transistors, today's 3GHz Pentium 4 processor boasts about 100 million transistors, including its cache or onboard memory store. That's enough transistors to build about 3,500 8086s, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research.

"Most of the changes...have been based on performance improvement. A 386 (chip, released in 1985) and a Pentium 4 are essentially functionally equivalent. Most of the evolution has been devoted to performance, with some devoted to additional functionality," McCarron said.

At 3.06GHz, the Pentium 4 is about 600 times faster than the 8086. The increases in performance have made new applications possible. Businesses and institutions are installing computing clusters, which offer supercomputerlike performance on the cheap, to help researchers in product design, medicine and physics. At the same time, fast processors let people touch up a photo or edit a home movie on a PC, before burning it to a DVD. When the 8086 came out, such feats were unheard of--the term "desktop publishing" didn't even exist yet.

Although it took Intel 25 years to hit the 1 billion mark, 2 billion should come along quicker. Factoring in chips from other manufacturers, such as Advanced Micro Devices, the x86 should hit the 2 billion mark by 2007, Intel predicts, using data from Mercury Research. AMD has shipped around 200 million x86-based processors in the last 25 years, McCarron estimated.

A trend toward more widespread use of the chips outside of PCs should help increase x86 shipments. Because the x86 architecture is proven, has a huge base of software support and can be made fairly inexpensively, hardware makers are looking at it more closely. Future applications include everything from consumer electronics to networking equipment and adjacent office equipment like copier machines, McCarron said.