Leader: Compaq, Intel and a chip named Alpha...

Suggestions of a resuscitation in Alpha fortunes may be misplaced, despite Compaq's hyping of the Digital-developed microprocessor architecture last week.

Some observers have even gone so far as to suggest that Compaq is betting heavier on Alpha than Intel's tardy IA-64. That's unrealistic. At least since Eckhard Pfeiffer took over the reins, Compaq has been a very worldly company that deals with the bottom line first, second and last. Its attempts to sound hot under the collar by Alpha price/performance curves is an unconvincing protestation of love. If Alpha is so damn great, why wasn't Compaq using it before it bought Digital?

The truth is that Compaq has discovered that Alpha may be a nice hedge against the worst kept secret in silicon: Merced is slipping. Merced - the codename for the first IA-64 processor - has already been delayed until mid-2000 and now reports suggest that the chip originally intended to be its successor, ‘McKinley', may jump the queue.

Cutting out all the rumours, speculation and intrigue about the respective merits of Intel- and Hewlett-Packard-led chip projects, the real meat here is that computer vendors that have bet heavily on IA-64 could be significantly hurt. Not so much by the fact that buyers are holding their breath for more computing power but by the fact that evaluation procedures could mean they will hold off purchasing servers.

Compaq certainly didn't buy Digital because of its Alpha legacy. It bought Digital for its huge base of blue chip customers, its excellent services business, its software integration skills, its cross-platform capabilities, and myriad other reasons. It had zero interest in Alpha before the purchase but - any port in a storm - it now likes the look of it in the expectation that rivals will be left floundering around waiting on Intel's designers.

OK, so Compaq is talking up Alpha, but it makes business sense to promote technology you're shipping to a significant existing customer base that needs an upgrade path. It would have been rank bad marketing for Compaq to have said: "Here are our latest Alpha server plans but you'd be better off waiting for the Intel gear."

Also, it's nothing new for Compaq to put a bit of fear into mighty Intel. Eckhard Pfeiffer is perhaps the only CEO to have openly spoken out against the chip giant in the past.

Pfeiffer is no Buddha and he hasn't experienced satori. Compaq hasn't travelled the road to Damascus and there has been no blinding vision. It just sees the opportunity to sell some Alpha kit if Intel is indeed having problems with its next generation.

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