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Will users, developers catch MMX fever?

As the introduction of Intel's MMX Pentium processor looms, the first few public appearances of the new technology have made it clear that the corporate IS audience is far from excited about a chip that is promised to make multimedia processing faster and cheaper.

As the January introduction of Intel's (INTC) MMX Pentium processor looms, the first few public appearances of the new technology have made it clear that for most users the technology?s impact initially will be muted and will be of more value to gaming and entertainment than to the business market.

This was painfully clear to Intel last week at Comdex in Las Vegas, Nevada. There was an ominous dearth of business application such as videoconferencing or high-speed communications that made use of the MMX functions on display at the conference.

MMX will be implemented in an upcoming version of the Pentium processor that will come with the basic multimedia processing capabilities built in. For entry-level PCs, these built-in multimedia functions should eliminate the need for high-end, expensive add-on graphics cards and some communications components. On more expensive PCs, MMX is expected to enhance performance of multimedia hardware.

For users to get any bang out of their MMX buck, they will have to use software written to support the technology. However, in one of the most critical application areas, business software, little software has been written to take advantage of MMX.

PC games are where developers and Intel have been show-boating MMX?s capabilities for the most part. In fact, the most impressive array of MMX demonstrations did not take place at Comdex, rather they took place earlier this year at Intermedia World where games developers were showing off their MMX-aware games.

"If you liked Intermedia World, then you?ll like what you see at the [MMX] roll-out," said one source familiar with the January 8 MMX Pentium introduction.

"[MMX] seems to be more entertainment-oriented. It isn't really addressing productivity applications or client-server applications," said Tom Reinlander, an analyst at market research firm Forrester Research.

It may be just as well if business users aren't actively looking forward to the arrival of MMX; analysts say the performance improvements promised by the new chip may be relatively disappointing.

"What worries me is a mismatch between expectations and the actual performance improvement," said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at market research firm Dataquest.

Pentium MMX processors are expected to offer an overall performance boost of between 10 and 20 percent because of a larger cache and other performance tweaks; this will apply to any kind of processing, not just multimedia. For certain multimedia and communications applications written specifically to exploit the MMX functions, however, performance will jump between 50 and 400 percent, according to an Intel MMX paper.

But some analysts aren?t so sure about how representative the latter application numbers are overall. "I'm not sure where they got these [high] numbers. I have to wonder about this a little," said Brookwood.

There are other areas where MMX may come up short as well. 3D, once touted as a major beneficiary of MMX, will not see the performance improvements that were initially expected: "3D rendering does not benefit dramatically from MMX," said Bill Miller, an Intel spokesman. He added, however, that applications that take advantage of Microsoft's MMX-optimized Direct 3D will see some improvements.

Moreover, running software that relies on the MPEG-2 compression technology will fall short on the MMX-enabled Pentium. MPEG-2 video is an often-cited benchmark of an Intel processor's ability to handle full-motion video without high-end add-in cards.

Full-screen, 30-frames-per-second MPEG-2 software will have to wait until the delivery of the higher-performing, next-generation MMX-enabled P6 processor, now due in the second quarter of next year.

This point was amply demonstrated at Comdex. Intel president and CEO Andy Grove gave one of the most (in fact, one of the only) impressive MMX demonstrations at the fall trade show. During his keynote, he showed a full-screen, 30-frames-per-second video demo with surround-sound audio. But the demo was made possible by using a next-generation MMX-enabled P6 processor, not an MMX Pentium.

Lastly, Intel admits that there could be problems with applications that are supposed to exploit MMX but are not written properly. For example, problems could potentially crop up when programs switch too frequently between floating point operations and MMX operations. "If all you did in your app is change states [between floating point and MMX], you would take a performance hit," said Intel's Miller. He hastened to add that he doesn't think this isn't likely. "Developers will be smart about optimizing their applications for MMX."

None of this means that MMX will be a flop, however. Intel itself is promoting MMX as linchpin for future technologies, sort of a necessary investment that may have delayed results. The only question is how long users will have to wait for those results.

"If you build it, they will come," said Dataquest's Brookwood. Like Intel, he expects that more and more developers will eventually flock to MMX, including business application developers.

"Intel did have business applications in mind when it developed this, but the consumer market has always led business," said Jeff Tarter, editor of Soft Letter, an industry newsletter published in Watertown, Massachusetts.

It is also clear that the chip maker won't give up until the business market steps in line with its plans. "Intel changed strategy to include developers. MMX represents the first time Intel has gone out in force to evangelize software developers to use the chip in all kinds of applications.

"Intel always had a coterie of developers, but it was a very, very private club. Now they are out there all over the place," said Tarter.