The personal computer of the future will have video that's as good as television, sound that stacks up to a high-end compact-disc player, and animation that's as smooth as a Disney movie. The question is: Who will build it?
Apple Computer - which traditionally has dominated this area of computing - is moving toward its vision of a next-generation, media-rich machine. But rival Intel Corp. is stealing some of its thunder. The Santa Clara, Calif., company is unveiling a new slate of computer chips that will take an important step toward turning the IBM-compatible computer into a box that even Hollywood could love.
The key to Apple's strategy is new operating-system software that it said Jan. 6 will come to market in 1998. The key to Intel's announcement is a chip technology called MMX, which will immediately be used in new, high-end computers now employing the company's Pentium chips. Whoever wins, consumers can look forward to machines that handle video, graphics, and sound much faster than today's personal computers (PCs).
"PCs as multimedia platforms have been growing dramatically," says Frank Spindler, marketing manager for Intel's Pentium chip. "We think this technology will make them that much more compelling against really any other alternative." Using one benchmark, the company claims a 60 percent boost in multimedia performance from MMX in a Pentium computer platform.
While MMX will speed up the video and audio processing of basic Pentium machines, it will not be as fast or smooth as purpose-built video games, such as Nintendo, or PCs with certain add-on video cards. Other manufacturers making Pentium clones also have plans to incorporate Intel's MMX - or multimedia extension - technology.
"It's definitely going to damage the Mac's competitive position in graphics," says Michael Slater, publisher and editorial director of Microprocessor Report, an industry newsletter published in Sebastopol, Calif.
Unlike previous chip enhancements, MMX will be available immediately for notebook as well as desktop computers. But it will speed up only certain kinds of software. Video, sound, and graphics applications will see big boosts in speed. Videoconferencing in particular may become far more attractive to consumers. MMX will allow computers to show video at speeds approaching 30 frames a second, even on an ordinary telephone line, says Mr. Slater. That would make computer video calls far smoother than today's jerky, five-frames-per-second technology.
Of course, the speed of video conferencing will vary depending on the quality of the telephone connection, cautions Mr. Spindler of Intel, who would not confirm the video speed of MMX. But "I think you will see an application like videoconferencing over standard phone lines reach a quality level that will be compelling for a lot of people."
Another big boost should come for video-game players. The new chips will be able to offer richer colors, higher resolution, more speed, and better sound than the chips they're replacing.
The chip will also dramatically speed up graphics programs, where high-speed PCs have been unable to match the performance of high-speed Power Macintosh computers. But because of work Intel has done with software companies, MMX may boost the speeds of PC-based graphics programs by three to four times, Slater says. If those claims hold true, that could turn the tables and give Intel a big speed advantage in a market that Apple has traditionally dominated.
How serious a challenge will MMX be to Apple's Power Macintosh? Apple watchers are taking a wait-and-see attitude. And Apple, quite apart from its operating-system road map, is reportedly preparing add-on cards to improve the multimedia performance of Power Macs. "They may well pull a rabbit out of the hat here," Slater says. But "the best-case scenario for Apple today is that it can defend its existing market share."
That's because all the major PC manufacturers are expected to begin shipping MMX-enhanced computers almost immediately. The chips will appear first in high-end PCs, especially at the consumer level. Spindler doesn't expect corporate buyers to take serious interest in the technology until the second half of the year. By June 30, Intel says it will deliver MMX-enhancements to its higher-speed line of Pentium Pro microprocessors.