Chip upstart takes on Intel... with God

VIA Technologies is not your usual chip company. Just ask chief executive Wen Chi Chen, who codenames his chips after biblical characters

The desktop PC processor market is turning into a battle of biblical proportions. So it only seems appropriate that newcomer VIA Technologies names its processors after biblical heroes.

Let's call VIA "David", because the company, lead by 45-year-old president and chief executive Wen Chi Chen, is taking on a giant: Intel, the chip industry's own Goliath.

Chen will need more than a slingshot to go to battle, however. With revenue and brand recognition just a fraction of Intel's, VIA will need to couple competitive technology, aggressive pricing and market nimbleness to dance between its feet. Its strategy: Go after the low-end of the market, where Intel is less likely to stomp on competitors. And VIA will also rely on some of Intel's competitors -- namely Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) and IBM -- to help in its quest.

VIA is a newcomer to the processor market, but not to the PC chip market. The company manufactures a number of popular chipsets -- combinations of chips that perform specific functions. Through that business, the company has formed strong ties with IBM, which uses its chipsets in some desktop PCs, and AMD. Many of VIA's most popular chipsets are for use with AMD's Athlon processor. "We've been strong partners for some time with AMD," Chen said. "We are happy working with them."

VIA is also a fab-less chip company, meaning it does not have its own production capabilities. It farms manufacturing out to a number of partners, including National Semiconductor. IBM has also been mentioned as a potential manufacturing partner.

Despite the battle it faces, VIA is clearly not afraid of Intel, which it will wrangle with both in the market and in court. Chen, in fact, is a 10-year Intel veteran, having worked as a design engineer on Intel's 386 and 486 chips. He left Intel in the early 1980s to found his own chipset company, Symphony Labs. He left Symphony to become president and chief executive of VIA. "I think VIA is the best thing that ever happened to me," Chen said.

A born again Christian, Chen said his strong religious beliefs inspire not only his personal outlook, but VIA policy. "Science and technology can go hand in hand with what the Bible tells us," Chen said.

His beliefs also motivated him to direct VIA to use chip codenames taken from the Bible. The company's Joshua processor, now known as the Cyrix III chip, was named after the biblical leader, who Chen describes as strong, courageous and unafraid to face up to his enemies. "It's an honour to use the (Joshua) name from the Bible," he said.

A forthcoming Chip, based on WinChip, is named after the prophet Samuel. A third chip, codenamed Matthew, is said to be a highly integrated, low-cost processor.

With its religious fervor, the Joshua product launch on 22 February was "one of the more unusual product launches I have seen in a long time," said Nathan Brookwood, principle at Insight64. There, according to attendees, Chen said, "With god on our side, we can beat Intel."

Chen's enthusiasm for his religion and its adoption into VIA's corporate culture shows in other ways as well. The company's home page carries a link to the prayer site World Pray. The site, sponsored by VIA, describes itself as a "non-denominational, non-profit Web site whose primary goal is to unite people around the world through prayer and spread the word of God". "The most unusual aspect of Chen and VIA right now is the religious aspect," Brookwood said. "It sets them apart. You're not going to see this on Intel.com or AMD.com."

Chen even applies his beliefs to "overclocking", the practice used by some computer enthusiasts to raise their PC processor's clock speed past its factory rating. While AMD and Intel are both trying to limit the practice to varying degrees, Chen addresses overclockers with a "live and let live attitude" -- if a consumer wants to make changes to the chip, it's fine with VIA. "We think that's something that the consumer can choose to do," Chen said. "Even if (resellers) sell a systems that's overclocked, as long as they can guarantee it, it's their issue."

Overclockers may be the least of Chen's worries, however. The legal battle between Intel and VIA, which has been brewing since late last year, may soon come to a head in court. Intel sued last year claiming VIA violated a licensing agreement that allowed the company to design and manufacture chipsets for Intel's Slot 1 architecture for Pentium II and Pentium III processors. The crux of the case, Intel said, is that VIA misused the Intel P6 processor bus. Intel has since revoked the licence, but VIA continues to manufacture chipsets for Pentium II and Pentium III. "We don't think we're doing anything wrong. We don't think the lawsuit has any merit," Chen said. "The main idea [of the suit] is to scare away customers."

But scaring away customers might not be possible, based on the growing demand worldwide for low-cost computers. "I don't think Intel matters as much as it used to... especially on the low end," Brookwood said. VIA "may very well find some inroads (in North America). Wen Chi also has his eyes pointed toward the (price sensitive) Asian market."

The fastest growing segment of the PC market, according to VIA, is for low-cost PCs. That market segment will be the focus of VIA's recently announced Cyrix III, as well as future offerings. The Cyrix III was designed for sub-$1,000 (£620) PCs. Chen also expects the chip to be utilised in computing appliances -- simplified devices based on PC hardware that allow users to perform only certain tasks, such as accessing the Web. These appliances, he said, may eventually outpace PC sales.

Analysts believe, however, that VIA will have to go lower on price in order to win PC makers' business. VIA's 500 and 533 Cyrix III chips will cost $84 and $99 (£52 and £61), respectively. Since the pricing on Cyrix III was announced, both Intel and AMD cut prices on their respective value chips. A 500MHz Celeron chip from Intel now costs $93 (£57), in 1,000 unit quantities, as does a 500MHz K6-2 chip from AMD. A 533MHz Celeron is now priced at $127 (£78) -- AMD's 550 K6-2 is $189 (£117).

"VIA is very committed to competing in the processor market using its fab-less model," Brookwood said, "but no-one is going to buy from VIA for a savings for $8 or $9 (£4 or £5)." The chip would have to be between $35 and $50 (£21 and £31) for it to sell well, Brookwood said. Because VIA, under its contract, has to give a portion of that price to its manufacturing partner, lower prices could put pressure on its profitability, Brookwood said.

But assuming VIA is willing to negotiate with PC makers on price, it might make up the shortfall in volume. "VIA does appear to have a competitive product, based on what the company has said... especially because of (Cyrix III's) compatibility with the socket 370 infrastructure," Brookwood said. This presents "minimal hassle to the PC maker" building a system using the chip.

VIA's Cyrix III also offers a better feature set than the Celeron, or even the K6-2. It offers more integrated cache, 256KB versus the Celeron's 128KB, and a faster system bus -- 133MHz versus 66MHz and K6-2's 100MHz. The system bus provides a data pathway between the processor and system components, such as memory. Ultimately, VIA's success or failure in the processor business does not rest on Cyrix III, analysts say.

Mike Feibus, principle analyst at Mercury Research, expects Cyrix III to be a "repeat of (Cyrix's) MII's success, which was a mild success at retail"."I don't see this as VIA's signature chip. The signature chip will come in about a year," he said.

This chip will combine low cost and high clock speed, with a number of integrated features. VIA will support this chip with several of its own chipsets, allowing PC makers to build PCs with good performance, but at a low cost to address emerging PC markets.

Ultimately, VIA's success as a chip maker will not be tied to its share of the US retail market. Instead, the company will aim for a smaller share of the larger worldwide market, simply because, "half of the market is not here," Feibus said.

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