Pentium II lacks killer software

Simply put, there aren't many business applications that require consumers to graduate from low-end Pentium MMX computers to Pentium II systems.

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
4 min read
Complex, data-heavy Web sites and business applications that only the fastest desktop computers can process are scarce, but these are exactly what Intel needs to drive sales of its Pentium II chip.

At the moment, few business applications require buyers to graduate from low-end Pentium MMX computers to Pentium II systems.

Intel, Microsoft, and other members of the computing industry are trying to persuade companies to write this kind of "killer" business software, but analysts say the mass popularity of power-hungry applications may be a long time coming.

The quest for heavy-duty applications does not spring from a desire to annoy customers. Rather, it's part of the high tech industry's most pressing problem: Without the need for high-end systems, prices and margins will remain low, according to various analysts and computer executives.

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And, until that changes, computer vendors will likely continue to beat each other up in the low-cost segment of the market.

Most users' need for additional speed was met a long time ago, when Intel introduced the 166-MHz Pentium MMX processor, said Kimball Brown, an analyst at Dataquest, a marketing research firm. Brown maintains that anything faster than this relatively low-end chip is overkill for the vast majority of buyers running standard business applications.

Brown also says that the Windows 98 operating system coming in June offers little that's new or different from Windows 95 and does not require a Pentium II upgrade. DVD titles and games require the processing brawn of the Pentium II, but those are part of a limited consumer market so far.

As a result, the push for more complex, graphics-intensive applications has become a central feature in strategy presentations from Intel as well as Microsoft.

The software giant started the ball rolling last month at WinHEC last month by announcing Chrome, a server-side technology that enhances 3D presentation on the Web. The trick: Chrome-ized pages can only be viewed on a computer running a 350-MHz Pentium II processor or better.

Yesterday, Intel followed up with the release of the 350-MHz and 400-MHz Pentium II chips. Paul Otellini, executive vice president at Intel, said software developers should not focus on the "lowest common denominator" applications but instead tackle projects that will hit more exclusive audiences.

"Chrome is a threshold application," he said. "It is an application that requires a new threshold of performance to run." As part of his demonstration, Otellini exhibited a 3D spreadsheet and a panoramic video application.

Portola Dimensional Systems released technology today that can be used to create 3D spreadsheets and other charts. But such applications are few and far between.

"There are not many things in the pipeline," said Kevin Hause, a computer analyst with International Data Corporation.

Encouraging software developers to shoot for the high end is generally a hard sell, he added, because of the chicken-and-egg relationship between hardware and software upgrades. Software vendors won't start attacking computers at this range until they become more widespread. Consumers, however, will remain reluctant buyers until the software exists.

"From a software developer or Web site developer point of view, your market is the installed base, so you tend not to address your projects just at the high end," he said.

But the industry will gradually move toward adopting more demanding technology, as it has with 3D, according to Hause. 3D demos have been standard fare at technology gatherings for years, he pointed out. This year, however, 3D is finally becoming a standard feature of business PCs.

Chrome won't even be out until early 1999, according to Microsoft.

Incorporating new technology into business PCs will take place slowly, said Stacy Hand, product marketing manager at Gateway 2000. Michael Takemura, product marketing manager for desktops at Compaq, concurred, stating that the more taxing applications will likely roll out over the long term.

Graphics are not the only application that will require more processing power. Microsoft has touted voice recognition for years, and will come out with its first voice-recognition product when the Auto PC platform makes its debut this summer.

Still, the quantum leap in application complexity has yet to occur. And without such applications, upward migration will be a tough decision to justify.

"There is no real choice between talking machines or a GUI [graphical user interface]. There are no thinking machines yet. We haven't incorporated a ton of 3D into our business memos," Nathan Brookwood, also of Dataquest, told CNET earlier this year. "Without these computing-intensive applications, people are saying, 'Hey, I can spend $1,500 or $2,000 on a machine. I'll buy the $1,000 computer and a really good monitor.'"

Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.