ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT (column) - 'Intel Inside' advertising campaign

Written by David Tebbutt, Computer Buyer 05/92 - scanned

[Intel has taken to the TV to plug its empty socket, but does anyone care about the make of processor in their machine? Dave Tebbutt thinks advertising chips through the tube is a pretty vacant idea.]

Have you seen that weird television advertisement where the viewer is `flown' around the insides of a personal computer? On rounding a corner, you see a garish neon sign which points down to a vacant socket on the machine's motherboard. The advertisement, which must have cost an arm and a leg, probably means very little to the average couch potato. And you and I, who know a thing or two about computers, were probably baffled too. The ad was all about raising awareness of the importance of Intel as a chip maker.

Intel has recently lost its court case with AMD, which leaves AMD free to make hay with its own derivations of Intel processors. At the same time, other companies are working on a different kind of processor - the Reduced Instruction Set Computer (RISC) chip. By reducing the number of instructions `hard-wired' on the chip - down to the 20% that are used 80% of the time - processor performance is speeded up and, presumably, design and manufacture is made easier.

Hewlett Packard and Samsung have the Precision Architecture RISC device. Apple and IBM are collaborating on the PowerPC RISC chips. The ACE consortium of computer makers has tried to standardise on a RISC chip from MIPS. And now Digital Equipment Corporation has announced a 64-bit RISC processor which it reckons will run on anything from a palmtop to a supercomputer. Intel is being nudged upmarket by competition at the 386 level and soon on the 486. But this is driving it towards a confrontation with the RISC makers. The company has to figure out a strategy which will ensure its survival. Intel's greatest strength lies in its history - the huge base of machines which use its chips and the software that runs on them. If the RISC makers can mimic the PC operating systems, this history will count for very little.

I suspect the average PC user neither knows nor cares much about the chip that drives the machine. As long as it runs DOS, Windows, Xenix or whatever, why should the user care about the actual chip inside? It's a bit like expecting the average car driver to care about the make of spark plug screwed into their engine. This attitude - or lack of it - spells bad news for Intel. It desperately wants people to care. So it's spending a king's ransom on advertising. You may have seen the maths coprocessor `on a plate' advertisement. Or more recently, the `Intel Inside' campaign.

Quite a few computer manufacturers are supporting Intel in this latest wheeze by putting the `Intel Inside' logo on their own advertisements. Intel's UK managing director, Dave King, sees this as rather similar to the NutraSweet branding on cans of artificially sweetened drinks. I suppose a lot of health and taste conscious consumers check for this brand name. I wouldn't know. At the moment, the `Intel Inside' logo is being applied to advertisements. The company hopes it will soon spread to packaging and documentation. Who knows? After that it may push for manufacturers to display the logo prominently on the computers themselves. (Just after I wrote this column, Amstrad announced that it was going to badge machines made by Intel. And it is expected to give the Intel name prominence. Perhaps the ad campaign will say `Intel All Through').

I can't help wondering what all this activity will do for the average user. Will it make them think that all `Intel Inside' computers are the same so you might as well go for the cheapest one? Intel doesn't think so. It believes that manufacturers will make sure their products are differentiated in other ways - disk drive size, the particular processor used, caching, expansion slots and so on. Intel is building heavily on the fact that it was the originator of the standard PC processor chip, and its view is that the logo will give the user a feeling of reassurance that they're buying a genuine PC, rather than one built around copy cat chips.

Despite perfectly good workalikes from companies like AMD and NEC, Intel is trying to make out that it offers the better choice. It knows that huff and puff is not enough; it has to do more than just say the words. Having embarked on a huge public awareness campaign, it now plans to extend the working life of all machines which use its 486 processors. It aims to give users an upgrade path through the vacant socket which has been so expensively advertised.

Already, buyers of a 486SX machine can stick a 487SX into the vacant socket to supercharge the machine. This is not so much a maths coprocessor as a complete replacement of the original, deliberately hobbled chip. The new one occupies the spare socket and contains circuitry to disable the 486SX. Users of other 486 chips - the 486DX and the `double speed' version of same - will be offered goodies to go in the vacant socket, although Intel won't yet give details. The company is also beginning to 'talk up' the 80586 and 80686 successors to the 80486. Presumably, it believes that the upgrade options and talk of new chips will be enough to fight off the pretenders to its throne.

I can't help feeling that Intel is chucking millions of pounds away. Surely all the user needs is an assurance that their applications will work. Perhaps Microsoft should embark on a `Windows Outside' campaign.