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The Stabilized World – there are aftershocks to come

Posted: 10.24.03

The tectonic plates of CPU Land and Pixel World are grinding against each other in a battle for dominance. Caught in between CPU World and Pixel Town is the place known as, The Chipset Zone….

Right now we have a fairly stable Industry with most if not all of the consolidation have taken place. The players have sorted themselves out in CPU World with Intel the giant king of the hill, AMD mounting charge after charge, and Transmeta and Via picking up the stuff the two big guys either overlooked or just can’t get to—yet.

In Pixel-Town Nvidia has moved into first place in almost every category, while ATI is defending its turf and challenging Nvidia on every front. 3Dlabs/Creative Labs and Matrox are stable, and relatively quiet—for now.

The Chipset Zone is a strange place occupied by disfigured aliens that are neither fish nor fowl. All in all they are diverse and difficult to define or categorize. The products of mixed marriages, chipsets are seen by some as a necessary evil. And, they will be the battleground of the two camps, CPU World and Pixel Town during the next two years, if not forever.

As the chart shows, Giant Intel has re-entered The Chipset Zone with several parts on all levels; a new server and soon to be workstation chipset, a new IGC, and soon a new IGC for mobile computers, and a family of mainstream parts.

But they will be met there by a host of others vying for the same space. There is a religious element to this battle as well. The camps are composed of the P4 vs. the Slot A followers, and the graphics goddesses vs. the good-enough advocates. And in between we have subcultures of inter-chipset communications called HyperTransport, V-Link, and 3GIO. Remarkably like all other religions in the world, they all are right and god is on their side, and therefore, they shall prevail, hallalula.

It’s called the Silicon Budget. There’s just so much in a system, and everyone wants more than his or her fair share (how would you determine “fair” –by the number of transistors, clock speed, pin count, MoBo area?). Intel dropped its prices in 2001 and helped stimulate the market. During that time the leading GPU makers either held their prices or increased them, eating into the system’s silicon budget. Intel wants it back, and one way to get it is to offer up a less expensive part than the folks from Pixel Town.

The folks from Pixel Town don’t get paid for their transistors as well as the folks from CPU World do, even though the Pixel Town transistors are just as fast and doing just as complicated tasks—life is cruel and unfair. This is a holdover from when graphics was just an ASIC to make a CRT light up. Now the GPU is threatening to make the CPU a coprocessor to it—but that’s a story for another time…

Other approaches for increasing their share of the Silicon Budget come from AMD and Transmeta who have assimilated the memory controller and a few control functions into the CPU. For a while Intel was considering putting the graphics controller in the CPU, and unfounded rumor has it that VIA already has such a part being tested.

Meanwhile, ATI and Nvidia look south for silicon real-estate opportunities there, and are finding some, while nimble agnostic players like Ali, SiS, and VIA pay homage to all religions offering support for every bus and configuration.

So far 3Dlabs and Matrox have stayed out of the fray, concentrating on their next designs (due out this year). But they won’t be welcome by Intel and AMD because the new parts from 3Dlabs and Matrox will take still more of the Silicon Budget and annoy the big boys in CPU World.

So you can see all is well in the computer industry. Everyone has settled into a comfortable position, content with what they have, and satisfied knowing they are doing the good work and that god is on their side, alone. Earthquake warnings are flying.