A Year Ago: Intel under investigation

First published: Wed, 15 Apr 1998 13:33:27 GMT

A federal court in Alabama has ruled that the world's largest chip maker may have violated US anti-trust laws by withholding information from workstation maker, Intergraph.

The news will be greeted with sly pleasure by some in the industry, who have long whispered that Intel has abused its privileged position as CPU bellwether and a full inquest into Intel business practices by regulatory bodies has been mooted since the early nineties.

Other chip makers say that Intel has used its muscle to attack them, by aggressively pursuing questionable technology patents and naming conventions, such as its failed attempt to trademark the 486 name. Even where Intel has failed to enforce its wishes, rivals say the distraction and uncertainty caused by these cases has hurt them in the eyes of their customers.

PC vendors, too, haven't always been keen on Intel, and many think more competition would make the company sweeter. Vendors who have shifted to multiple sources for CPUs say they have struggled to get the requisite number of parts from Intel. For Taiwan's Twinhead, the comeback was even stronger: a test case that claimed the firm should pay royalties to Intel, even though it was using a rival chip, because both used the obscure 'Crawford' patent (patent concerned with how the CPU communicates with RAM).

Another pet peeve has been Intel's heavy-duty protection of its branding exercises, such as x86, MMX and Intel Inside. For example, when Cyrix punned 'Cyrix Instead' on T-shirts and promotional materials at a trade show, Intel's lawyers acted swiftly to protect the prized 'Intel Inside' logo.

In Intel's defence, not all its accusers sing from the same hymn sheet. Compaq chief, Eckhard Pfeiffer, famously lashed out at the company for restricting PC differentiation by becoming a powerful player in the motherboard market.

In the end, what really irks most people is that Intel all but owns the market for PC processors. Like Microsoft, it has used every iota of that power to maintain its position, leading to all manner of accusations.

A full investigation into the way Intel conducts its business would be welcomed not just by rivals, but by anybody who feels that competition is a good thing and that monopolies can lead to the abuse of power. That way, we can get behind the veil and answer one of the oldest questions in the business: is Intel taking advantage of us?