When Intel Nearly Lost It

In the late 1980’s a debate raged in the IC industry: RISC vs CISC.

“some of our people took the position that the RISC approach represented a 10x improvement, a level of improvement that in the hands of others could threaten our core business,” recalls the then Intel CEO Andy Grove in his book, Only The Paranoid Survive.

So, to hedge their bets, Intel decided to make a RISC processor

Intel, like IBM, had compatibility at the heart of everything it did. Its upcoming 486 could run all the existing PC software. The RISC alternative could run nothing.

“To get under the management radar screen that guarded our compatibility dogma,” writes Grove, “the engineers and technical managers who believed RISC would be a better approach camouflaged their efforts and advocated developing their chip as an auxiliary one that would work with the 486.”

By 1989 the 486 and the RISC processor, the i860, were complete.

‘We didn’t know what to do,” says Grove, “so we introduced both.”

The result was a massive turf war within Intel for internal resources to support the rival architectures and widespread confusion among Intel’s customers.

Compaq advised sticking with the x86, Microsoft advised going with RISC.

Intel couldn’t support both architectures.

Years later Grove said: “I shake my head about how I could have even considered walking away from out traditional technology.”

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