The release of Intel's new-generation processor has generated enormous worldwide interest, due in no small part to Intel's unprecedented marketing campaign. ARN's James Niccolai weighs the benefits against the hype.
At a preview event to help launch its upcoming Pentium III processor, Intel was joined by a legion of software, hardware and content providers that have optimised products to take advantage of enhanced multimedia capabilities in the new chip.
Software makers Lotus, Microsoft and Lernout & Hauspie Speech Products, PC manufacturer Compaq and content providers Bloomberg and Excite were among more than 200 companies on hand to help Intel plug its new chip.
"Whether you're a consumer, a small business or a big business, the Pentium III will bring some capabilities that you haven't had before, and make the Pentium III user's experience a better one," said Craig Barrett, Intel's president and CEO.
By staging the event - the biggest of its kind Intel has ever attempted - the chip maker hoped to drive demand in advance of the official release of its processor on February 28. Initially the processor will appear only in high performance - and therefore more expensive - systems. Over time the Pentium III will replace the Pentium II at all price points, much as the Pentium II has replaced the Pentium MMX.
"I think you'll see Pentium III machines launched at under $US2000 and coming down into the mainstream over time," said Paul Otellini, vice president and general manager of Intel's Intel Architecture business group.
Launching the Pentium III has already proved to be problematic for Intel, in part because of its plans to include an individual identification number into the circuitry of each chip. While Intel and its partners say the unique ID number will help enhance security, critics, including consumer rights advocates like the American Civil Liberties Union, have said it will provide online marketers, as well as more unscrupulous people, with a way to track users' movements on the Internet.
Intel officials have sought to downplay those fears. The company will "strongly advise" PC makers to ship their systems with the ID number disabled, Intel vice president Mike Aymar said. The company has also said it has developed a software program for Windows that allows users to turn the ID number on and off at will.
"The privacy groups have a very specific agenda -- they believe that any number that identifies you is bad. That's their fundamental belief, but it's not our position," Aymar said.
The Pentium III will debut at 450MHz and 500MHz, with a 550MHz version to follow in the second quarter, Barrett said. Next month, the company will officially launch a version of the chip for servers and workstations, called the Pentium III Xeon. The Xeon chip will also debut at 450MHz and 500MHz, with a 550MHz version following in April, officials said.
Perhaps more important than the speed, the Pentium III includes a set of some 70 new processor instructions known as the Katmai New Instructions (KNI), which Intel says help its processor handle applications that feature speech, graphics, audio and video. Software and content makers can write applications that take advantage of those additional instructions.
The Pentium III will provide users with richer Internet experience even using standard analog modems, and thus help drive growth of electronic commerce and other online services, Barrett said.
To illustrate, he showed a Web site developed by online shopping store The Sharper Image, which made extensive use of 3D graphics. Using the mouse pointer, users can rotate and turn a 3D image of a product they might want to buy. "The important thing here is the richness of information you can get," he said.
Meanwhile, Excite has developed a 3D version of its search engine which presents search results in a series of 3D carousels spread about the screen. Users can rotate the carousels using the mouse pointer and click to open files.
While much of the Internet content shown wasn't greatly different from anything shown at other events, what was special, Barrett said, is the quality of content that users can get with the Pentium III over a standard 56Kbps modem. With xDSL and other high-bandwidth technologies, the quality improves more, he said.
Intel has also shored up support from makers of business software. Since the Pentium III will be available initially only in pricey, high-performance desktops, analysts have said it will be important for Intel to attract business customers to help drive sales of its new chip.
IBM said it has optimised its ViaVoice product to work better with the Pentium III. The speech recognition program has been integrated with Lotus's SmartSuite Millennium Edition to allow users to operate applications like the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet and the FastSite intranet publishing software using voice commands.
Meanwhile Network Associates said its Gauntlet Active Firewall software uses the identification number stamped into the circuitry of the Pentium III to identify networked devices and trigger alerts to network managers if there is a problem.
Intel has also made an effort to reach out to international computing firms to broaden demand for its product. Chinese PC maker Legend was on hand to show a Pentium III system it will offer in China. Meanwhile, German software maker Brokat Infosystems AG said its Twister middleware product, used by businesses to help deploy e-commerce systems, takes advantage of the serial number to help authorise transactions.
When Intel launches the Pentium III later this month, it will be accompanied by the biggest marketing blitz the company has launched yet, which will cost around $US300 million, Barrett said.
Like the Pentium II, the new chip initially will sport a 100MHz front side bus - the bus speed determines how fast the processor communicates with other parts of a PC system, affecting overall system performance. Later in the year the chip maker plans to crank the speed of the Pentium II up to 600MHz and above, and will increase the front side bus speed to 133MHz, Otellini said.
Increased memory bandwidth
The company also plans to introduce support for the Direct Rambus interface technology, which promises to sharply increase the memory bandwidth in PCs and further boost performance, Otellini said.
Intel rival Advanced Micro Devices already has a similar multimedia-enhancing technology - known as 3D!Now - in its existing K6-2 processors. Analysts have said Intel's KNI may be slightly superior to AMD's 3D!Now for running certain types of applications, but Intel initially will offer KNI only in its highest performance chips, while AMD has been offering 3D!Now across its product line for some time.
Intel has no plans to include the Katmai New Instructions in its Celeron family of processors, designed for low-end PCs, before the end of 1999, Otellini said.
Intel blew it on privacy, but needs remainby Dan GillmorIntel set off a privacy firestorm with its recent announcement that it would embed network-trackable serial numbers into its new Pentium III chips. The company promoted the idea as a fine way to enhance electronic-commerce security, but privacy advocates focused on its Big Brotherish aspects.
Intel has dug itself a hole with this plan and has shown again that major American companies are amazingly tone-deaf when it comes to understanding regular people and their worries. The chip-making giant could have made a better case if it had focused on the serial-number notion in large enterprises, where keeping tabs on information-technology assets is a serious chore. IT, in fact, should be thrilled with the scheme.
IT has long had a way to track computers and other equipment. Ethernet nodes have ID numbers, after all. And there are identifiers in workstations from companies such as Sun and Hewlett-Packard. Again, this makes sense in the enterprise. But it's a red flag for consumers, who want privacy and security. Intel is telling us we can't have both. That's bull, and Intel knows it.
At least Intel backed off from its original stance, by making the default condition for the serial numbers to be "off". Computer users will have to turn them on before the network can query them. Perhaps, as one cynic suggested, this was the company's long-planned fallback position, though I suspect Intel was genuinely surprised by the reaction.
But as critics have noted, the ID scheme has some fundamental flaws. "The basic problem is there's no secure way of querying the number, so you have no verification the number is accurate," cryptography expert Bruce Schneier said last week.
IT will come under pressure from marketing in many enterprises that have Web presences or sell products online.
The pressure will be to force customers to turn on their chip IDs so they can transact business. If you do, be prepared for trouble. The same organisations that are promising to boycott computers using the Pentium III will likely look askance at companies that use the IDs.
One of the chief ironies in this brouhaha is the setting for Intel's announcement: the annual RSA Data Security Conference, held last month in San Jose, California. The initials RSA stand for a technique for public-key encryption.
Public-key cryptography provides an extremely safe way to send information plus a way to verify who sent it. A robust public-key infrastructure would do more for electronic commerce than all the chip serial numbers, but law-enforcement agencies don't want strong cryptography to become ubiquitous because they fear criminals could shield their communications more easily.
IT will do us all a favour by using the Pentium III serial numbers internally only and pushing hard for the public-key infrastructure everywhere. That, not Big Brotherism, is the way to achieve security and privacy.