Once Intel Corp. unwraps its 586-generation microprocessor, expected in August, the Santa Clara (Calif.) company may not have the market to itself for very long. At least one cloner could wade in with a competitive design in perhaps only weeks, not the year or more it took to clone Intel's 486 and 386 chips. NexGen Microsystems Inc., a startup in nearby San Jose, claims that it has already designed a 586-compatible chip that churns through as many as 100 million instructions per second. NexGen is now waiting to see Intel's specifications before putting the final touches on its design and shipping it off to contract producers, including Hewlett-Packard Co.
Although NexGen believes its 586 chip will run any software developed for Intel microprocessors, the two designs won't fit into the same circuit-board socket. So NexGen's customers will have to develop a special motherboard, the primary circuit board in desktop computers. While that's expensive, a similar strategy seems to be working for Cyrix Corp. in Richardson, Tex., which sells 486 and 386 "workalike" chips. NexGen's investors include Compaq Computer, Mitsui, and Olivetti--with the biggest stake, 10%, held by Ascii Corp., a Tokyo microprocessor and chip-design specialist.