Information Processing


A mainframe on three chips

Business Week

March 2, 1981

Although it is not yet 10 years old, the microprocessor--or computer on a chip--has added computing power to a vast range of products from autos to appliances and has even created entirely new industries such as electronic games and intelligent computer terminals. An incredible 150 million of the fingernail-size semiconductor devices were shipped worldwide last year. The market for just the chips alone, virtually nonexistent in 1973, rocketed past $750 million in 1980.

Now semiconductor makers are readying a new generation of microprocessors that promises to be the most significant advance in integrated circuits since the invention of the microprocessor itself. Leading the way is Intel Corp., the company that pioneered the computer on a chip.

A new generation

On Feb. 17 the Santa Clara (Calif.) company announced the first of this new generation, a product that packs the power of a large mainframe computer on just three semiconductor chips. "With these chips, you can put the capabilities of a mainframe on a desktop," says Leslie L. Vadasz, senior vice-president at Intel. "That's an enormous amount of intelligence at the fingertips of the user."

The new chip set, called the micromainframe, was five years in development and will open up applications for which earlier microprocessors lacked sufficient power and conventional computers were too costly. Like traditional mainframe computers, the micromainframe handles 32 bits of data information--twice as much as today's most powerful microprocessor. As a result, the Intel product can handle more complex tasks than previous microprocessors.

Indeed, Intel executives say that the new 32-bit microprocessor is so powerful that it could become the "brains" for such currently unavailable products as office workstations that can understand human speech, and industrial robots that "recognize" the parts on an assembly line. Adds Vadasz: "At least half of the applications that will exist in 5 or 10 years, we can't even imagine today."

Most of these future smart products, however, will require tremendous amounts of software, the instructions that tell the computer what to do. Writing software is a labor-intensive effort for which costs are moving upward at a fast clip. To hold down these soaring costs, Intel has built more of the instructions into the 32-bit chips than they have ever had before.

Programmer productivity increased as much as fivefold in preliminary tests with the micromainframe, Intel claims. "In the past, programming microprocessors was a superhuman effort," says William A. Wulf, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University who has experimented with the new Intel product. "That will change now," he says.

The telecommunications and office automation markets are likely to be the first to employ the new generation of 32-bit chips. American Telephone & Telegraph Co. sees such a huge potential for these powerful microprocessors that its Bell Laboratories is developing its own 32-bit chip. AT&T could design this chip into a telephone and program it, for example, to refuse incoming calls from certain telephones. "To put a small minicomputer into the telephone today, you need a box the size of a small refrigerator," says Solomon J. Buchsbaum, executive vice-president for customer systems at Bell Labs. With the new chip, how ever, the telephone would not look much different than it does today, he adds.


Other companies are now talking seriously about building computer-based workstations for the office around these chips. Such terminals would handle data processing, word processing, electronic mail, and electronic filing--all at the same time. "Everyone has talked about doing that--now we'll really be able to do it," says Neil Gorchow, vice-president for product strategy at Sperry Corp.'s Univac Div., which plans to evaluate the new Intel chip for use in Univac products.

The power of the new microprocessors will also enable manufacturers to make office equipment easier to use. "Building a system that is friendly to the user requires a lot of processing power," points out James Kasson, vice-president of engineering at Rolm Corp. Kasson figures that the micromainframe will enable manufacturers to build an advanced office workstation that will be so easy to use that operators will require no training.

Another equipment maker that has big ideas on how to use the new chip computer is Hewlett-Packard Co. The micromainframe could help the company build more reliable machines that can be more easily expanded to include more features, predicts E. David Crockett, manager of computer strategy. He notes, for example, that the new Intel device has "redundancy built right in" to reduce breakdowns.

Unlike previous chips, the micromainframes can also be easily hooked together to obtain still higher performance levels as a user's needs grow. "It's as if Ford Motor [Co.] could build everything from Lynx to Lincoln with the same set of tooling," says David P. Best, Intel's marketing manager for the product.

New end products. The micromainframe and other microprocessors in its class are expected to do more than spawn new applications. Industry watchers say that these integrated circuits are so powerful that new companies, and even new industries, will spring up to build new end products using these superchips.

In the next five years, Intel's Best predicts, "dozens of companies" will be formed to build products around the micromainframe. In all, the market for the micromainframe and other 32-bit chips now on the drawing boards at other semiconductor makers could top $200 million by 1985, forecasts Creative Strategies International, a San Jose (Calif.) market researcher.

Intel has yet to set a price for its latest microprocessor. But Daniel L. Klesken, an industry analyst at Dataquest Inc., figures that systems built around the 32-bit microprocessor could sell for as little as 20% of the cost of a minicomputer today--or about $6,000. "This will put computing power into applications where minis are too expensive," he says. Klesken predicts, for example, that the micromainframe will have a "tremendous impact" in signal-processing applications for the military and for companies engaged in oil exploration. At the same time, Intel's Best expects that medical imaging systems--now a high-cost item for hospitals--could become cheap enough for every doctor to afford.

Educating users

To turn these predictions into a reality, Intel is mounting an aggressive marketing effort to explain the potential of the new chips to customers. For more than a year now, top company officials have been holding briefing sessions for Intel customers, and, in March, the company will begin shipping "evaluation systems" to give customers hands-on experience with the new chips. By 1983, Intel figures it will be able to turn out the micromainframe in large volume.

In the meantime, other semiconductor makers are working feverishly on similar products.

"Right now," says Subhash Bal, product manager for National Semiconductor Corp., "the Intel micromainframe is too expensive for the needs of microprocessor applications." He maintains that National's new microprocessors being introduced later this year can easily grow into full 32-bit devices when the market is ready.

But many industry analysts believe that the new generation of chips, like those before it, will create its own market as it becomes available. And they believe that Intel's competition will need at least a year to match the micromainframe. "Timing continues to be Intel's forte," says Dataquest's Klesken. "By getting to the market early, Intel should be able to reap good margins before the entry of lots of competition." 

GRAPHIC: Picture, Vadasz: "An enormous amount of intelligence at the fingertips." Liane Enkelis

Copyright 1981 McGraw-Hill, Inc.