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History of ACE
Alternatives to the PC

By:David K. Every
©Copyright 1999

Intel has a very long history of pre-announcing things as a way of creating FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt) in competitors products, in order to starve them out of the market. It is hard to tell who used this technique first, Intel or Microsoft, since both brought the technique to PC's around the same time -- but there is no doubt that they learned the technique well.

FWIW they learned the from IBM, for whom the term was originally coined during the 60's and 70's.

The strategy is to inject fear into purchasers, to scare them away from buying a competitors product -- until you can come out with a higher priced, lower-performing rip-off. The buyers think, "why should I buy a competitors chip, when Intel's will be far faster, and is only a couple months away?" Of course, if Intel fails to release on time, or fails to deliver promised performance, Intel is still better off than doing nothing. So there is almost no risk or downside -- unless the market catches on. So far the press has been very reluctant to call Intel on it, since they are such a good source of ad revenues.

One of the many examples of FUD was used by Intel to crush the ACE consortium.

In 1991 the ACE (Advance Computing Environment) consortium was created (1). This would allow for many vendors to finally make a PC that was better than the current PC. It could use the MIPS R3000 processor (and follow-ons), or the 386sx (or follow-ons). It would run many different Operating Systems including; OSF's Unix, SCO's ODT and Microsoft's WindowsNT (which was supposed to be out that year -- <chuckle>) Many companies happily joined this consortium, primarily to get out from under Intel's grinding thumb, and to create a better PC. The companies included; DEC, Compaq, Silicon Graphics, SCO, and many others.

(1) It is amazing that things that happened just a few years ago, are already becoming ancient history and fables (and widely forgotten). I suppose I should start this article off as, "Once upon a time...".

ACE computers were going to be a beautiful thing, and a way that any company could create a platform, and put in either a 386 (Intel) or a MIPS RISC chip (which would deliver better performance and lower power to the PC market). It would also have helped with many other problems inherent with the PC's flawed design. These companies had just been brutalized by believing Intel's hype on both 386 and 486 deliveries -- which had cost them millions. Intel was (at that time) trying to use various ploys to starve companies out of the I/O and graphics chip markets (2). Basically, ACE just became a failed attempt to open up the PC platform, and break it out of the grasp of the duopoly.

(2) Intel didn't actually succeed at starving competition out of the I/O Chip market until the Pentium Pro / Pentium II. Now there is no real competition left other than for lower-end clone-processor I/O chips. Intel also used the Pentium Pro and Pentium II's, "special" cache as a way to completely dominate all cache chip sales as well. Intel is still trying to starve competitors out of the Graphics chip market with some new versions of the Celeron -- MMX may have been another volley in that war.

The point is that Intel's anticompetitive nature is nothing new, and goes back a long way. Intel is in lawsuits because of these and other practices, that may or may not violate the letter of the law -- but certainly violate the spirit of "free market". Whether they lose or not, they have a tradition of trying to resist competition, of making proprietary products, and trying to play very hardball. The PC is not an open platform due to the work of Intel, and if it is so, it is likely directly in spite of Intel's efforts.

Intel was also scared because the R3000 was outperforming their 486 (or was likely to) -- and the Advantages of RISC (and the R4000) were going to give them a growth advantage over Intel's inferior CISC based anachronistic (1970's) design.

Also, in late '91, Apple, IBM and Motorola announced their AIM alliance, and promised the PowerPC in just under a year (a very aggressive schedule), and with performance that gave Intel great concern -- and consider the performance of the RS/6000 (Power Architecture) that IBM was delivering, and the PowerPC was based on, there was plenty to be concerned about. Despite AIM's serious threat to Intel's future, they were far more concerned about the bigger threat to their present.

Intel was scared, I mean REALLY scared. They didn't have the technology to compete, so they reacted with the only weapon they had, hype. They promised that the Pentium would be out in a year (late '91 or early '92, with volume production to follow in fall of '92). The chips were supposed to drop right into the current 486 sockets (in some flavors). Intel promised that 66 MHz would be the starting speed for the Pentium (with higher speeds as well), it would be 2 times faster than 486 (int) and 4-10 times faster than 486 (fp), and a far better performer than the MIPS R3000 or R4000. The Pentium would slice bread, and mow your lawn, and complete an infinite loop in just 5 seconds. All of Intel's usual garbage promises. This was all FUD (Fear Uncertainty and Doubt) to defraud the public, and break the ACE Consortium, and scare people away from the AIM Consortium.

When Intel delivered, 66 MHz was the maximum speed at introduction (not the low-end) -- but, in fact, they were only claiming 66 MHz parts, no one could really get them (only 60 MHz). By the time they first shipped the first buggy chips in volume it was the end of '94. By the time they got working chips in volume shipments, it was the end of '95. The performance was 1.5 time faster than the mid-end 486's -- not 2 times faster the cutting edge 486's (as they had implied). They didn't come close to the 10 times faster floating point number they were claiming (though it probably was a respectable 4 times). The MIPS chips resounding beat the Pentiums in performance. The Pentiums went way over power budget, and started the PC trend of requiring special fans for your processor (and high processor failure rates). The chips that delivered compatibility with the 486's, weren't out until late '95.

Microprocessor Report sums it all up very well:

In response to the RISC threat from ACE, Intel accelerated its P5 program [later named the Pentium] and began showing up at every PC industry conference touting the P5 as being only a few months behind the R4000 and offering higher performance... The PC industry seemed to buy Intel's story... As a result, the ACE effort collapsed, and the P5 -- still a paper tiger -appeared to have triumphed. In the meantime, however, the P5 slipped... by the time the P5 is shipping, [MIPS was] shipping the R4400 with perhaps 50% better performance than the P5. Intel's preemptive strike against the ACE initiative turns out to be, at best, a result of wishful thinking, and at worst, a fraud. (MPR 061503)

On another prong of the attack, Intel started going to anyone who was involved in the Consortium, and letting them know in no uncertain terms, that they were going to get fewer shipments of parts, worse discounts, and whatever else it would take to hurt them, if they didn't break out of the consortium. Of course this is illegal, so most of these were just implied threats, or little actions and hints -- but the marketing and sales people did get the message across -- if you cross Intel, you will be starved out of the market. (All or nothing).

The straw that broke the camels (consortium's) back, was when Intel intimidated Compaq into dropping out, by suddenly not supplying them with the chips they needed to stay in business. Compaq suddenly had trouble getting supplies and sample of the next generation chips, and they took the hint, and bailed out of the consortium. Suddenly, supplies and samples from Intel were freed up -- completely by coincidence I'm assured. Compaq was the anchor of the consortium. With Compaq out, there wasn't critical mass, and the others realized that if Compaq could be starved out, then they couldn't stand up alone. Intel could pick them off, one by one.

Once the other vendors dropped out of the consortium (and buying MIPS processors). MIPS was suddenly put into financial hardship since they had invested money for design and manufacturing, expecting a market that had suddenly dried up (thanks to Intel). MIPS collapsed and was going to go bankrupt when Silicon Graphics (who was already committed to MIPS technology) HAD to come in and buy up MIPS to save their own investment. At least Silicon Graphics bought up MIPS for a song. The result of this action, is that Intel will finally give PC's a RISC chip (Merced/EPIC) a mere 10 years after they would have gotten it if Intel hadn't been successful at defrauding the ACE consortium out of existence.


Intel couldn't compete on technology, and they knew it. But they knew they could win the marketing war -- because they had bought out the press. I have a hard time believing that Intel was so naive about processor design, that they didn't realize that their processor couldn't be delivered in 6 months or a year, and actually took 3 or 4 years. I mean they are only one of the largest Microprocessor manufacturer in the world -- why should they know the difference between a 6 month and a 4 year schedule?

In 1994 when Apple was announcing machines (PowerPC's) that beat the Pentiums (resoundingly in the real world), while MIPS had also beaten them in Processor technology, Intel announces that it will spend $150 million in marketing. That's when the flying Pentium commercials came out (made on Macintoshes) to tout the superiority of their inferior processor. And the press scrambled over each other -- not to explain the truth, but instead to get those advertising dollars. Despite Intel (Pentium) falling on their face, it was all a success, because the press and industry did not hold them accountable -- and look who really won.

While the ACE consortium was certainly a failure, it was not a failure of the technology. (MIPS delivered what was promised, and then some). It seems to be more a failure of our society to allow that to happen without a complaint, and without anyone remembering or caring.

Created: 07/08/97
Updated: 11/09/02

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