Timing is everthing for Intel's powerful multimedia chip

What a horrible thought--all those brand-new, 133-MHz Pentium machines you just ordered
are about to go obsolete. Why? Because Intel Corp. has developed a super-multimedia
Pentium chip with nearly 60 new instructions to multiply video and multimedia performance
as much as fourfold.


The multiprocessing capabilities of the Pentium MMX (multimedia extensions) chip aren't
just for home game computers. What should you expect from the upcoming 200-MHz Pentium Pro
MMX?


How about full-screen, TV-like video that doesn't need a Motion Pictures Experts Group
accelerator chip? How about a whole new set of three-dimensional graphics instructions?
How about videoconferencing good enough to become a mainstream business application ?


The big question is whether Pentium computers with the new MMX instructions will arrive
this year or late next year. This fall could shape up as the best or the worst season in
recent memory for hardware and software sales, depending on whether the MMX arrives and,
if not, whether buyers still want lower-priced though old-style Pentiums.


Christmas buying alone can influence supply and demand enough to have a measurable
effect on everyone's computing costs. It won't be smooth sailing for this latest Intel
chip, not even for Intel itself. Consider the situation.


Software developers already are in possession of the new chip's specs, which will be
relatively easy to integrate into many programs, although C code doesn't support
multiprocessing. So there will be a lot of language work for programmers on the MMX
libraries.


The difference between jumpy, small-window video and smooth, full-screen video is like
the difference between a slide show and a TV show. No developer who thinks MMX is for real
will want to work on anything but software for this new platform. So what happens to
developers if the software is ready but not the hardware?


MMX probably will wipe out the market for existing Pentium designs from Intel rivals
Advanced Micro Devices and Cyrix. Although AMD has the right to incorporate MMX
eventually, Intel once again will corner the high-end chips for a time.


Once the hardware is available, developers won't want to publish any more software
without MMX features, so multimedia users will be forced to upgrade yet again by buying
new computers or adding Intel OverDrive chips.


But suppose a lot of buyers get excited about MMX before Intel is ready to sell it?
That could mean bad public relations for Intel. Would the bottom fall out of the market
for soon-to-be-obsolete Pentiums? You bet. It could make existing Pentiums dirt-cheap for
a few quarters.


Let's summarize. Buyers face a radical advance in graphics technology, which will make
their existing systems has-beens. Developers will jump to the new technology with a whole
slew of upgrades, which they can sell only after the new hardware becomes available.


Of course, it's not all bad. If the hardware is delayed, that should slow down the
upgrade'20cycle, giving us a well-deserved rest from constantly installing new software.


Where does this leave government computer buyers? If you use 3-D graphics or
multimedia, it leaves you up the creek. Buying a thousand Pentium PCs could be an
expensive disaster. But if you want Pentium speed for non-graphical processing, maybe you
just struck gold.


I'm sorry I don't have any solid advice to offer. It's just too early, and there are
too many variables. I'll keep you posted.


John McCormick, a free-lance writer and computer consultant, has been working with
computers since the early 1960s. He welcomes mail from readers. Write to him care of GCN,
8601 Georgia Ave., Suite 300, Silver Spring, Md. 20910.


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