Can Intel Keep The Pc All Powerful?

Willisville promises to be a popular destination on the World Wide Web when it opens to the public late this year. It is a virtual-reality community that blends film, video games, and chat lines to create savvy and responsive fictional cyber-residents. Visiting Net surfers may wonder whether they are talking to computer characters or real people. At least that's the hope of Hollywood multimedia artists Allee Willis and Prudence Fenton.

Don't expect a Willisville cartridge for video-game players from Nintendo, Sega, or Sony. Only a PC has the resources to run the many elaborate programs that make Willisville come alive.

That is a message Intel Chief Executive Andrew S. Grove hopes will come through loud and clear. Intel Corp. provided the seed funding for Willisville to underscore that PCs can offer much more than emerging competitors such as PlayStation. Grove isn't running scared, but he's not standing still, either. In July, Intel and Hollywood's Creative Artists Agency Inc. will open a center aimed at accelerating development of PC-based entertainment software. Intel aims to convince movie studios and software companies--dozens of which Intel is backing with money or equipment--that the PC is the premier multimedia vehicle. And Intel is investing in a portfolio of new technologies to supercharge future PCs. The silicon dreams of many other chipmakers, says Grove, are going to end up as little more than "intellectual machinations."

NEW PATHWAY. That will happen only if Intel can reinvent the 14-year-old IBM PC (table). One problem the company has addressed is the often painful experience of attaching speedy new gadgets to a PC. The problem exists because there are different, incompatible connectors for monitors, CD-ROM drives, and modems. But with Intel's new Universal Serial Bus, all peripherals use the same plugs. Moreover, the bus, or pathway, can shuttle data among devices 100 times faster than today's connections.

To speed multimedia data inside the PC, Intel last month unveiled its Accelerated Graphics Port, which bypasses a common traffic jam between the Pentium and graphics chips. It will show up in next year's PCs. By yearend, the company expects its chips will double their multimedia-processing hustle, thanks to a set of special Pentium instructions dubbed MMX. "We're trying to eliminate the bottlenecks," says Michael A. Aymar, vice-president of Intel's Desktop Products Group.

Intel also wants to make the PC a better communicator. The company is working with makers of cable modems to speed Web browsing. It is marketing its own add-in cards that grease the flow of data on corporate networks. And it's working on new network standards to speed video transmission.

To complete the PC's transformation into a universal information appliance, Intel is adding novel multimedia capabilities such as Intercast. This is a plug-in board that plucks TV signals from broadcast or cable--along with related Web pages transmitted in unused slices of the TV signal. So viewers can check Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Mike Piazza's stats while watching him bat.

Intel has many believers. Says Mark C. Melliar-Smith, chief technology officer at AT&T Microelectronics: "The PC will have the master's position in tomorrow's homes," and the fancy new gizmos will be its slaves. The PC's adaptability and power will always keep it on top, says Grove: "I don't see anything [else] that's likely to take off in big volumes."

Even if no one product is an imminent threat to the PC, the cumulative effects of several different systems could be powerful. Combine cable-TV boxes that can surf the Web with videophones that can hook up to the Internet, for example, and you can see why Grove has to keep running.

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