Dvorak on the Itanium

Generally I like what John C. Dvorak has to say and I think he is on target, as a whole. But his last article “How the Itanium Killed the Computer Industry” smacks of cabin fever.

In 1997 Intel was the king of the hill; in that year it first announced the Itanium or IA-64 processor. That same year, research company IDC predicted that the Itanium would take over the world, racking up $38 billion in sales in 2001. Wow! Everybody paid attention.

Yup, I remember that, hype was the order of the day, and then we waited, and waited, and waited, well you get the picture. In the meantime the x86 caught up in terms of speed. It has happened before, a company (I can’t remember the name) licensed the PowerPC design from Motorola and was going to make a kick-add PowerPC chip, and we waited, and waited, and when it finally came out the regular PowerPC architecture had caught up (only to hit a nasty brick wall later.)

Andy Grove figured that Intel could pull an Apple and do what Macs did when that company transitioned from the 68000 to the PowerPC chip: run legacy apps in emulation. It’s been done before, after all, and this chip would be so powerful (they thought) that nobody would even notice. No matter that Apple got lucky with its emulator, and that generally emulation sucks.

Emulation is not always that great, the 68000 emulator on PowerPC was slow, not because there was an issue with the emulator but because the first PowerPC chips were slow. On the other hand the PowerPC emulator on Intel worked pretty well, mostly.

Because this chip was supposed to radically change the way computers work and become the driving force behind all systems in the future, one promising project after another was dropped. The MIPS chip, the DEC Alpha (perhaps the fastest chip of its era), and anything else in the pipeline were all cancelled or deemphasized. Why? Because Itanium was the future for all computing. Why bother wasting money on good ideas that didn’t include it?

Ok, so some projects were dropped but I am not sure this was all the fault of the Itanium, MIPS had a very small market, perhaps it deserved to disappear. But I was sorry to see the DEC Alpha chip disappear, it was way ahead of its time when it came out.

On the other hand we had the Opteron which was a great chip, giving Intel a run for its money as well as a swift, incentivizing, kick in the pants to develop the current architecture.


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