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Intel to Bridge its 64-bit Gap with x86

Intel said it is considering updating its 32-bit x86 processor line to 64-bit, but when that will happen is anybody's guess.

In a Webcast for financial analysts, company president and COO Paul Otellini said the company continues to be open to the idea, but maintained that there is no mainstream 64-bit application available that is pushing Intel's 64-bit agenda beyond its Itanium processor family.

"You can be fairly confident that, when there is software from an application and operating system standpoint that will take advantage of it, that we will be there," Otellini said during the webcast.

Intel spokesperson Scott McLaughlin told internetnews.com Otellini's comments were in no way indicative that the company has something in the pipeline, despite what pundits might be saying.

"We have said that we would look at the extensions if the ecosystem is there and by ecosystem we mean software and operating systems will support it and if customers are requesting it," McLaughlin said.

Currently, Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel maintains a healthy 32-bit processor lineup with its Pentium desktop processors and its workhorse Xeon server chips. So the need for Intel to ratchet up Pentium or Xeon to 64-bit status seems to be a dilemma for Intel.

During the company's last bi-annual Developer's Forum, Intel CTO Pat Gelsinger suggested that the need to move to 64-bit was not even necessary until at least until 2006 or 2007. Any move prior to that might be considered premature at best, Gelsinger said at the time, considering the 32-bit addressing limit of 4GB seemed to be doing fine in the marketplace.

And while the shift to 64-bit processors is not impossible for Intel, there is the question of whether or not the company would extend the technology and put it in direct competition with Itanium.

"Once you can get the 64-bit technology in a Pentium, the higher priced Itanium seems outdated," Industry analyst Rob Enderle told internetnews.com in a recent interview.

Sales of EPIC-architecture Itanium have been sputtering along. In November, Otellini said the company is on track to ship 100,000 units by the end of 2004 and about 300,000 by the end of 2005.

He acknowledged that the cost of memory to support 64-bit systems could price a desktop PC somewhere between $2,000 and $3,000, but said eventually there would be price drops.

"Just like we went from 16- to 32-bits, the memory requirements grow over time on applications, just as memory costs come down over time," Otellini said. "So at some point it becomes very economical."

Adding to Intel's headaches is the growing popularity of x86-64 processors being produced by rival AMD . The Sunnyvale, Calif.-based semiconductor maker is reporting a growing number of sales for its Opteron and Athlon 64 products.

Previously code-named "Hammer," the server and desktop processors can run 64-bit applications natively but are also backwards compatible with 32-bit programs.

To counter, Intel has been working on its Yamhill technology. The set of 64-bit extensions to the 32-bit x86 instruction set is not expected to debut in Pentiums until 2005. However, American Technology Research analyst Rick Whittington said Intel's x86 at 32-bit is showing its age in both desktop and server applications.

"If they choose to stay with Itanium as their only 64-bit solution, AMD could capture significant share," Whittington said in a recent e-mail to subscribers. "If Intel announces its own x86-64 processor, any traction Itanium has will be slowed to a crawl and force Intel to play catch up. Perhaps Intel lets enough leak out about its own x86-64 extensions for Prescott or Tejas that if forces customers to wait and AMD's momentum slows.

In the mean time, Whittington said customers should expect to be treated to price cuts on Intel's aging x86-32 line while AMD responds to compete.