Cheap and potent, PowerPC chip takes on Intel


The heavyweights of the personal-computer industry are prepared once again to slug it out in Las Vegas where the annual Comdex/Fall trade show opens today.

The tone for this year's extravaganza was set earlier this month, when a man in a powered parachute sailed down into the Las Vegas boxing ring where Evander Holyfield and Riddick Bowe were fighting for the heavyweight title.

If there is a similar disruption this week, it will be the arrival of the PowerPC chip. The chip is a new microprocessor forged by the alliance of IBM, Apple Computer and Motorola. It could drop into the ring where Intel Corp. -- the heavyweight champ for the past decade -- is beating the chips out of its many challengers.

"I think it's the last chance for true competition in microprocessors," said Kimball Brown, vice president of microsystems research at Infocorp in Santa Clara, Calif. "Intel is becoming incredibly stronger by the month."

For many of the estimated 150,000 people expected to make the annual pilgrimage to Las Vegas, the PowerPC will be merely a curiosity.

There will be faster-smaller -cheaper desktop and notebook computers, glitzy multimedia computers and software, wireless communications devices and hand-held computers called PDAs (personal digital assistants) that promise to combine computing and communications services in a tool that fits in the user's pocket.

Even so, the PowerPC chip deserves attention. Apple is betting its future on PowerPC Macintoshes;it said it plans to ship 1 million of them in 1994, with 80 percent of its Macintoshes using the chip by 1995.

IBM has said it will use the PowerPC chip in mainframes and laptops as well as desktop and workstation systems.

This doesn't mean that the so-called X86 chip architecture will go away when PowerPC-based business computers arrive on the market next year.

The computing world belongs essentially to Intel and Microsoft Corp. There are tens of millions of computers using Intel's 386, 486 and Pentium (586) chips already in use, and businesses have invested billions of dollars in software linked to those chips.

Microsoft is selling 1.5 million copies of its Windows software each month, most of them in tandem with an Intel-based computer.

But last week, the PowerPC suddenly made the jump from middleweight to heavyweight. The added muscle came from Microsoft, which announced that it would design a version of its Windows NT operating system for the PowerPC chip.

Windows NT is Microsoft's new 32-bit operating system for big, corporate computer customers. It is not a next-generation Windows, except in name. Most people who use Windows today will be more interested in a version of Windows called Chicago, which will probably be named Windows 4.0 when it appears on the market next year.

In preliminary testing, the PowerPC chip appears to outperform the Intel Pentium. Byte magazine reported that the first PowerPC chip, the low-end MPC601, offers from 1.4 to 4.7 times the performance of the Pentium, depending on the application.

The key for computer companies, especially IBM and Apple, is that the PowerPC chip is half the price of the Pentium (about $450 vs. $900). Both Apple and IBM say they will be able to sell PowerPC computers at prices below those of Pentium-based systems -- offering more power at less cost.

Intel is a formidable company and will certainly be introducing newer, faster versions of the Pentium chip. It will have to, because Motorola, which is building the PowerPC chips for Apple and IBM, has faster PowerPC chips in the works already.

There are other contenders, including Digital Equipment Corp.'s Alpha microprocessor, for which Microsoft has already fashioned a version of Windows NT. But Digital now has to compete with IBM and Apple in an arena -- personal computers -- where it has not been strong.

The big question is whether companies that now use Intel machines will see an advantage in moving to PowerPC Macs, cheaper though they may be.

It seems certain that a reinvigorated Macintosh PowerPC may at least stop current Mac customers from defecting to Windows.

But the announcement last week that Windows NT will run on Power PC chips is also a boost for IBM, broadening PowerPC's appeal beyond the current IBM offering of AIX, IBM's variation of Unix.

Michael Gumport, senior electronics analyst at Lehman Brothers in New York, said the PowerPC chip "will have an impact, but it's not as if it's going to change your life."

"I'm a great enthusiast for Windows NT," Gumport said. "But the fact is that very few people today are buying it."

And that raises the question of Chicago, aka Windows 4.0.

"The functionality of Windows 4.0 is what everyone wants on the desktop," said Brown of Infocorp. Windows 4 may be available by the second half of next year, and it will probably be selling millions of copies, and they will probably be going out the door on inexpensive Pentium-based systems.

So, while the PowerPC is doing its warm-ups outside the ring, the Las Vegas oddsmakers are not yet counting out Intel.

(Peter Lewis works out of the New York Times' Austin, Texas, bureau: [512] 328-8258.)

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