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The Color Of Silicon

An in-depth report on how AMD and Intel keep on hustling each other, and what the future may hold for both.

Competition in sports is a simple zero-sum spectacle; one winner, one loser, and the audience goes home excited but otherwise un-enriched by the outcome. Competition in the business arena is more complex. Everyone gains something, no matter who gets bloodied. Witness the never-ending struggle between Intel and AMD.

The two firms have been going at each other since 1991, when AMD rolled out its AM386 clone of Intel's 80386-DX. Some readers may recall that Intel licensed its 386 technology to AMD, enabling Intel's first and now its only serious competitor in the PC microprocessor market. Far from hurting Intel's sales, AMD has improved its archrival's products and revenues while thriving in its own right. To explain this ironic result, let me turn to a classic movie about my favorite subject, billiards.

In "The Color of Money," Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) is a washed-up hustler with deteriorating vision and little motivation to earn more than his daily bread and booze. One day, he is awakened by the "thunderbolt break" of Vince Lauria (Tom Cruise), a talented and brash player who comes out of nowhere. Vince's meteoric success inspires Felson to get serious about his own game again. Inevitably, Felson and Vince meet in a winner-takes-all tournament. There is no decisive victory; and many movie fans are disappointed by the apparent anticlimax. But they miss the point, just like those who seek a definitive winner in the Intel v. AMD match.

Intel without AMD would be like Felson sans Vince: uninspired, inert, and sloppy. We might all be using 80486 machines today. Conversely, AMD's game would not be so sharp if not for the challenge posed by Intel's preeminence. Indeed, AMD might not even be in the game had Intel not licensed its technology to AMD way back when. Like Felson and Vince, Intel and AMD bring out the best in each other whenever they go head to head for serious money. The coming year's silicon tournament features two main events: dual-core and 64-bit x86 processors.

The Race To 64 Bits

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