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Green beans and Pentium IIIs

April 12, 1999
by Zac Belado

Technology is fast becoming a fractured commodity. Technologies like Linux are aimed at a very technologically sophisticated audience. The new Pentium III processor is aimed at a consumer market. These are the boundary markers of the limits of this commodification of technology; those who write their own kernels and those who just want to plug in their machine and surf. How you gauge your technological prowess is based on your distance from these two poles. And increasing, where you fit in that spectrum determines how you are marketed to.

Intel has recently expanded the area that is marked as consumer technology with their advertising campaign for the new Pentium III. This process actually started with the ads for the MMX chips filled with disco dancing chip fab employees putting the "funk" back into your silicon. Now the ecstasy popping employees have been replaced with a "behind the blue door" campaign that looks more like an inadvertent semiotic reference to 70's porno films. Both campaigns are noteworthy because of the change they indicate in not only Intel's view of its market, but also how the product itself has forced these changes.

The "consumer friendly" process for the new Pentium III has taken several steps further toward the transmogrification of the CPU from a technologist's product into a consumer product. It also follows that this has meant that the selling points of the product have become less specific and more in-line with the standard feel good/lifestyle advertising that is more common for products like soft drinks.

This process is happening by default and is a result of the expansion of the computer market that the Internet heralded. Computers were first used by hardcore hobbyist who built their own Altair boxes. These were followed by the early users of the Apple II and the IBM PC who were still more likely to program their own games and apps than current computer users are. The vast wave of computer users who swelled in the mid eighties were, while far more "normal" than past users, still highly defined markets; designers, business users, programmers, CAD users. But the rush to get on the net has brought computers into homes and onto desks of people who probably wouldn't be buying a computer if it weren't for their desire to be able to email their relatives. It's no accident that the latest iMacs are in designer colors. Jobs isn't being a snob when he says that people are more concerned with the color of their computers, he's just acknowledging a new reality in the computer industry.

If you visit Intel's Pentium III website you'll notice that there are no technical specifications for the chip. You need to visit the general Product Info page for that. And once you're there you'll only get a veneer of technical specifications. Certainly nothing like the details that some reviews have provided. Is this simply a result of the need to cater to a market that isn't as capable (or even interested) of determining the meaning of the specs? Or is the reason summed up with a quote from the Ars technica review:

Let's look at the fact that, in 3D games anyway, a 500MHz Pentium III overclocked to 560MHz outperforms a 300MHz Celeron overclocked to 464MHz by only 4.4 percent. Let's look at the fact that, assuming you can find a Celeron 300A and overclock it successfully, you've spent $60 plus the cost of a fan. Let's look at the fact that a 500MHz PIII is going for $747 on Pricewatch as we write this article. Break it down--the PIII costs nearly twelve and a half times as much as the 300A.

Or to be more direct...is the new consumer focus of the Pentium III a result of market forces or a result of the chip's failings?

Certainly Intel has had more pressure in the consumer end of the computer market. AMD has been very successful in getting its CPUs accepted and companies like Dell and Compaq have been eager to purchase them to help lower the price point of their computers. The surge of sub $1000 systems is a direct result of this. AMD has cheaper CPUs and Intel can't really afford to compete with them on price. So it has to resort to speed and features. The problem is that there isn't much speed left in the Pentium architecture. The performance gains that a user got moving from a 486 to a Pentium will not be duplicated with the move from a Pentium II or Celeron to a Pentium III. That leaves Intel with the daunting task of trying to sell a CPU based on anything buts its technical specifications.

And to be honest, the market for sub $1000 machines are not technically sophisticated users. These are people that wouldn't know the difference between a 512K L2 cache and a 16K chip resident cache and would probably be slightly suspicious of any sales pitch that mentioned them. You can't market to this type of user with specs and Bytemarks. So Intel isn't bothering to.

The first striking thing about the Pentium III website is that the specifications of the chip are not used to try and sell the chip. Contrast this to AMD's webpage for their K6 III chip. In fact, one gets the impression that Intel would rather lose a limb than discuss the chip's performance statistics. Vague product and application categories are displayed, such as voice recognition, 3D games, web development and video telephony, all of which can currently be performed by the current crop of processors from Intel, AMD and Motorola. Intel doesn't offer anything new, just the illusionary promise of "better" and "faster". Which is a direct appeal to that section of the market that doesn't want to concern itself with numbers that it doesn't really understand. Numbers which are also becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Clock speeds are beginning to enter an area where the MHz ratings are practically meaningless. If you use your computer for email, word processing and the odd game of Myst (which probably accounts for a large percentage of the computer market) then you will probably get a better ROI (return on investment) from an additional 32 MB of RAM than you would by swapping out your processor. What is the real difference between a 200 MHz chip and a 450 MHz chip if the biggest load on your system is created by Word? To make things even worse for Intel, those people that typically drool over quicker chips, hardcore 3D gamers, get better performance by purchasing a dedicated 3d card (like a Riva TNT or the newly released 3dfx Voodoo3) than they would a faster processor. And for the price of a PIII you could buy one hell of a good 3D card. Or even a very good AMD processor. Which probably explains why AMD's website is stuffed with technical information and why Intel's is filled with pretty graphics. Intel has been left with the very few options when it comes to marketing their new chip. Hence the "feel good" advertising surrounding the new Pentium III.

This is roughly the same marketing model used by most of the consumer goods companies. Green beans are green beans no matter who boils and cans them and technological products have been able to avoid this type of marketing due to the basic nature of the products. Software product A has 10 more features than product B. Hardware product C is 20% faster than product D. The computer industry has been driven by a marketing model that is, at its base level, simply a case of "mine is bigger".

Unfortunately the market that is developing for hardware and software won't care. Take the case of games like Deerhunter (link to past errata piece) which suffered from atrocious reviews and still sold millions of copies. The recent Intel advertisements for the Pentium chips and the iMac point to an expanding market which responds to a type of advertising that most of the computer industry isn't currently equipped to provide. Slick graphics, innovative marketing schemes and little to no "techie" information to scare people off. The industry is going to have to make an about turn in order to try and capture this market and will most likely leave technically sophisticated users in the wings because this new market dwarfs the established base of computers users. For every person in an office cranking out slick multimedia pieces in Director there are 15 people who just want to email snapshots of the kids to their aunt in Hobokken. Guess which group is going to drive the next wave of products and hardware?

Zac Belado is a programmer, web developer and rehabilitated ex-designer based in Vancouver, British Columbia. He currently works as an Application Developer for a Vancouver software company. His primary focus is web applications built using ColdFusion. He has been involved in multimedia and web-based development, producing work for clients such as Levi Straus, Motorola and Adobe Systems. As well, he has written for the Macromedia Users Journal and been a featured speaker at the Macromedia Users Convention.

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