More blows rained down last week in the slugfest between Direct Rambus DRAM and double-data-rate SDRAM, with Intel Corp. clearly in the middle.
Intel caused much of the excitement by confirming that it is ending its Pentium 4 rebate plan and phasing out an incentive program under which it had been bundling Pentium 4 microprocessors and Rambus memory for white-box PC sales. An Intel spokesman said the memory IC discounts were no longer needed to promote the Pentium 4 family because Direct RDRAM prices have fallen sharply in the last several months.
Analysts also noted that Intel is within weeks of introducing its 845 Brookdale PC chipset, which for the first time will allow it to offer the Pentium 4 with low-priced PC133 SDRAM.
"Intel will now have a low-cost Pentium 4 memory option and no longer needs to create any incentives to promote Pentium 4 with Rambus memory," said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at InSight64, Saratoga, Calif.
Micron Technology Inc., a big DDR SDRAM booster, hailed the demise of Intel's Rambus-related incentives. "In the very large Intel-based market, it means DDR is competing on a level playing field now against Rambus," said Mike Siebert, strategic marketing manager at the Boise, Idaho, chip maker. "No longer is the market skewed by Intel throwing extra money behind RDRAMs."
Rambus Inc., on the other hand, saw the end of Intel's discounts as proof that Direct RDRAM is now becoming price competitive with DDR. "Rambus prices have been dropping rapidly. A 128-Mbyte RIMM module that cost $250 a year ago is now priced under $50," said Avo Kanadjian, vice president of worldwide marketing at Rambus, Los Altos, Calif. "The price differential over DDR is no longer a major factor, especially when you factor in the higher performance of RDRAMs."
Kanadjian also pointed to new, lower-cost four-layer Pentium 4 motherboards that are using RDRAMs, which have caused Taiwanese vendors to ramp up boards using Intel's 850 chipset. These devices replace a six-layer board design that several Taiwanese companies had said they were reluctant to support. Taiwan's motherboard makers are also poised to launch Pentium 4 products with PC133 SDRAM as soon as Intel debuts its 845 chipset.
Several Taiwanese board makers exhibiting last week at the Platform 2001 Conference in San Jose said privately they will ship Pentium 4 products this fall with DDR memory using an announced chipset from Via Technologies Inc. Intel hasn't yet granted Via a license to develop chipsets using the Pentium 4 processor bus, although Eric Chang, director of marketing at Via's U.S. subsidiary, would not say whether the company will ship the chipset without first obtaining Intel's approval.
Most industry sources at Platform 2001 fully expected Via to jump into the Pentium 4 DDR market this fall with or without an Intel license. One major memory supplier said white-box PC makers and some foreign OEMs are set to launch Pentium 4 DDR systems in November using the Via chipset.
Intel has repeatedly said its own DDR-enabled chipset for the Pentium 4, a version of the Brookdale reportedly called the 847, will come to market in the first quarter of 2002. Both single-data-rate and DDR capabilities are included on the same Brookdale chipset, with Intel simply disabling the DDR function on the initial release.
With DRAM makers now allocating their production mix for chips slated to roll off the production line in the fourth quarter, a few indicators of how DDR and Rambus will play against each other are starting to become apparent.
Elpida Memory Inc. expects DDR SDRAM to run about even with Direct RDRAM unit shipments by the end of the year-each representing about 15% of the company's total DRAM sales.
Mike Despotes, president of Elpida Memory (USA) Inc., San Jose, said that based on preliminary orders from customers, the DDR ramp will pick up markedly in the second half.
In the first quarter of next year, he expects DDR to exceed sales of Direct RDRAM, adding that in the second half of 2002, DDR could even exceed sales of PC133 SDRAM. Since Elpida makes both DDR and RDRAM, it is considered by some to be a more neutral forecaster than memory makers that have sided with one architecture or the other, said Sherry Garber, an analyst at Semico Research Corp., Phoenix.
Micron's DDR shipments could rise to as much as 30% of total DRAM sales by the end of the fourth quarter, said Fred Waddel, director of sales at the company's computer and communications group.
Separately, Micron last week said that its legal battle over the ability of Rambus to enforce its SDRAM patents will continue, after an appellate court in Milan, Italy, rejected Rambus' petition for a preliminary injunction to block Micron from making the chips at its fabs in Avezanno, Italy. In that case, Micron has been charged with making SDRAM without having received a license from Rambus, which claims to own patents covering key aspects of the technology.