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Intel Katmai chips due in 1999

In 1999, Intel will ship a new processor technology dubbed Katmai, designed to enhance complex applications such as 3D graphics and speech recognition.

Intel (INTC) will ship a new processor technology dubbed Katmai in 1999, designed to enhance complex applications such as 3D graphics and speech recognition and run at speeds starting at about 500 MHz, company executives revealed today.

The Katmai technology was formerly known as "MMX 2" and essentially represents the next phase in Intel's visual computing strategy. Like MMX, Katmai is a series of instructions incorporated into Intel processors, said Richard Dracott, the company's marketing manager.

The introduction of Katmai is expected to precede Intel's next-generation 64-bit Merced chip.

Developers will use the instructions to create more complex, richer computing environments and applications. Katmai's debut will also coincide with speed improvements for memory chips and enhancements to Intel's Accelerated Graphics Port (AGP) chip technology.

"Anything in the visual computer space will improve," Dracott said,

To encourage developers to adopt the technology, Intel will pour substantial resources into getting Katmai software and applications into the market well before the chip comes out. Katmai development tools were distributed to select software developers during the third quarter of 1997, while demonstration units containing processors will be sent out by the middle of this year. Development funds will also be given out.

These steps presage a very aggressive program to flood the market with software that takes advantage of these new instructions. Intel was comparatively late in prodding developers to adopt the current MMX technology.

But the chip's enhancements are not likely to cause an overnight change, Dracott added. As with MMX, the improvements will probably come gradually and depend upon the type of application. Games, for instance, should be one of the first areas to show improvement.

Even if there is an initial dearth of Katmai-enhanced applications when the processor comes out, computers with the new technology will likely find a receptive audience as users will want to have the capability when the applications do eventually arrive.

"There's always talk about the big one [software application], but there's never a big one until it's past. With MMX, we didn't need one to move it," Dracott said.

Katmai technology will be introduced commercially in the first half of 1999 on Pentium II processors, according to Dracott. The Katmai instructions will show up first on processors designed for higher-end workstations and desktops but will soon migrate to the entire product line, including the low-end Pentium II chips being designed for set-top boxes, he added.

Technically speaking, Katmai will be a more intricate technology than MMX. Katmai will consist of 70 new processor instructions, whereas MMX added 57 new instructions. Moreover, Katmai is designed to work with the processor's floating point "data types," which are responsible for multimedia, scientific, and engineering number-crunching.

Although Dracott would not specify performance features of the first Katmai chips, he said that the instructions would not likely appear on the 450-MHz Pentium II processors, which are due toward the end of 1998. Incorporation into 500-MHz processors, however, "would be reasonable to assume," he said.

The 1999 release date may give archrival Advanced Micro Devices a leg up on Intel. That competitor is planning to release its first K6 3D processors, code-named Chompers, at the end of this quarter. A second generation of 3D technology will then be released by AMD in 1999.

In related news, Loewenbaum & Company analyst Ashok Kumar cut his earnings estimates on Intel, claiming the company's accelerated transition to the Pentium II processor is expected to cut into gross margins in 1998.

The chip giant said that by the end of its second quarter 50 percent of its production will be Pentium II processors.

Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.