LAS VEGAS -- Via Technologies Inc.'s plans to slug it out with Intel Corp. on the low end of the PC microprocessor market are coming to light with details of its next two CPUs. Word of the Joshua and Samuel processors, which surfaced at the Comdex trade show here this week, is lending credibility to Via's strategy in what will likely be a tough marketing battle, according to analysts.
By early next year, Via will release a Celeron-compatible processor for the low-end PC segment, code-named Joshua. Via will follow that up in the second half with a highly integrated device that leverages all of its legacy products and its recent acquisitions. Code-named Samuel, the chip will feature a processor core, graphics components and core logic controllers, and is likely to go head-to-head against Intel's upcoming Timna chip.
"Our roadmap is pretty simple," said Wenchi Chen, president of the Taiwan-based Via Technologies, in a briefing at Comdex here this week. "We'll let Intel and AMD focus on the premium space, the 700-MHz-and-above area, while we plan to serve the low-cost PC space."
Joshua is to sample early next quarter and move into production by February at speeds starting at 400 MHz. Within a few months, Chen said it should rise to the 500-MHz range. The device will be pin-compatible with Intel's Celeron products, and Chen said it will be the first non-Intel CPU to plug into Socket 370.
Previously known as Gobi, Joshua came along with the Cyrix design team that Via acquired from National Semiconductor Corp. in June. This was followed by Via's acquisition in August of a second processor company, the Centaur unit of Integrated Device Technology Inc.
Historically, Via's own core strength is chip sets, and recently it has begun adding graphics technology acquired through joint design efforts with S3 Inc. By the second half of next year, Chen plans to put all those pieces together in the Samuel device.
Dean McCarron, principal analyst with Mercury Research, of Scottsdale, Ariz., said the Samuel effort also stems from the Cyrix legacy. "The Cyrix design team has always been working on the Media GX line, and they were developing a fully integrated product that included graphics and core logic when Via bought them," he said.
However, the upcoming device will also pack a processor core from the Centaur team, which has long advocated small die sizes as a means to produce highly cost-effective devices, according to McCarron. That strategy fits with Via's plans to aim the Joshua at the value-PC market.
That schedule will put Samuel in competition with Intel's Timna chip, which could be released in the third quarter of next year. Analysts have been skeptical that Intel could complete the device on that schedule, because of its ambitious combination of processor, graphics, core logic and a Rambus memory controller.
Among Intel's other competitors, Advanced Micro Devices seems to be on a rebound with fast versions of its Athlon on tap and a recent announcement that the Sunnyvale, Calif., company will break even financially this quarter. However, AMD endured extensive losses over the past few years in its bid to remain a player in MPUs.
For its part, Via is focused on the same market that National and IDT had targeted. Their successes were limited and eventually they bailed out by selling to Via.
However, Chen pointed to a few key differences. "We are a fabless company, so we have access to the best fabs in the world, but we don't have to pay for them," he said. And, referring to the company's history in the cut-throat chip set market, he added, "We have a lot of experience in the value end of the marketplace. We are used to earning lower margins than the processor companies."
McCarron agreed with Chen's analysis. "AMD always had to earn high margins on its products in order to pay for some very expensive fabs. Via doesn't have that problem," he said. More important, "Via is used to playing in the chip set market where margins tend to range from 15-to-50%. In the microprocessor space, 50% margin is often seen as the bare minimum. Even if they don't manage to meet that or just stay at the bottom of the processor margin range, it will still be a step up for them."
Another factor in Via's favor is geography. U.S.-based AMD has always made a point of cultivating the top-tier U.S. OEMs, which puts it in direct competition with Intel. Via, by contrast, has direct access to second-tier Taiwanese PC companies that are beginning to cast a hungry eye on the massive Chinese market. Via's low-cost products are exactly the kind of chips that will offer high enough power and low enough costs to make a system attractive to the developing Asian markets.
"In the market segments in which they will choose to compete, I think Via will be a very credible competitor against Intel," McCarron said.