Vendors push back on Intel's Rambus

Just one week away from Intel's launch of its first product to use the Rambus memory architecture, the religious debate over the future of PC memory architecture is casting doubt over the future of Rambus and Intel's overall ability to dominate the PC market as it once did.

Credited with driving PC hardware standards for decades, Intel has met with significant resistance from PC makers in establishing Rambus, or RDRAM, as the de facto memory model in PCs. When the company announces its 820 chip set on September 27, less than the normal standing-room-only crowd of PC makers will be saluting its RDRAM capabilities.

"Initially, when people started talking about RDRAM, we thought it was going to be a radical shift toward the new technology," says Scott Edwards, manager of Deskpro marketing at Compaq, in Houston. "As time has progressed, however, you are not going to see that with things like PC133 (synchronous DRAM)."

Edwards is referring to a low-cost competitor of RDRAM that has garnered the support of IBM, Dell Computer, Hewlett-Packard and Compaq Computer. While most PC OEMs will offer both technologies to customers, RDRAM will cost twice that of SDRAM and is currently experiencing crippling supply constraints and disappointing performance results, according to Edwards. Meanwhile, PC makers are forced to design systems that incorporate both.

"We see some of the value proposition of Rambus, but we also realise that it is not for everyone," said Mark Bony, Kayak product manager at Hewlett-Packard, in California. "It is safe to say that we had to work a little harder to make systems with both."

And given Intel's past dispute with PC makers over future I/O technologies, and current chasms on memory standards, this once-unified market is growing further apart on some critical issues. With the growing segmentation in the PC market, Intel's role as undisputed leader is being questioned.

"This happens periodically when Intel and its customers are all heading in the same direction, but we may have differences in opinion on the best way to get there," said Howard High, an Intel spokesman. "But there is a part of Intel that plays a leadership role, and I stress leadership and not management. It hasn't always been smooth, but it's not getting harder, just more complex."

Some PC vendors have grown to resent the power that Intel has held over decision making and brand marketing in the PC business.

"A lot of other OEMs are losing their identity on their products, making just their brand of Intel components," Edwards said. "We are still trying to get the customers to look at our product as not just a box with Intel parts inside."

One analyst said that Intel is certainly serving its own interests in the PC market, but that doesn't mean this is any different than how they have driven technology in the past.

"They are trying to do things that are very ambitious, but it is not any less successful as things have been in the past," said Michael Slater, principal analyst at MicroDesign Resources. "Intel sees where processor performance will naturally go, and if the rest of the parts in the system can't keep up, no one would care (about faster processors). So they need to be sure nothing else is in the way of wanting faster processors."

Adding costs

Besides a low supply of RDRAM contributing to the fact that it costs twice as much as alternatives, here are some factors that will heap more costs onto systems that use RDRAM.

-- Redesign of circuit board

-- New chips

-- RDRAM memory modules

-- Enhanced testing equipment

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