Date July 6, 2000
Why Cool Chip Code Names Die
By Arik Hesseldahl

No one who knows Intel was the least bit surprised when it said last week
that it will call its forthcoming PC processor the Pentium 4. Couldn't the
world's biggest chip company come up with a new product name to shake
its identity? If it ever wanted to, it might take inspiration from its many
product code names. 

Before it was the Pentium 4, it was called Willamette. Before Pentium
III, there was Coppermine and Katmai.
Before Pentium II there was Klamath and Deschutes. So, what happened to
all these cool code names that
they were replaced by boring and predictable product names? They fell
victim to the most successful branding
campaign in the history of the computer chip industry. 

When Intel's (Nasdaq: INTC - news) Pentium name first hit the public
consciousness, it sounded like the
name of a newly discovered radioactive isotope, like Radium or
Plutonium. Today the name is more or less
the PC industry's equivalent of Coca-Cola (Nasdaq: COKE - news) or
McDonald's (NYSE: MCD - news).
The Intel Inside stamp on a PC and in ads for PCs amounts to a modern
Good Housekeeping Seal of
Approval. When a PC maker advertises it wares on TV, Intel picks up part
of the advertising cost. In return it
gets various little plugs during the TV spot, like the now familiar
four-tone and chimes sound effect. 

Besides Pentium, Intel also makes a chip called Celeron for cheaper
computers aimed at consumers and is
readying a 64-bit chip for servers and workstations with another name
seemingly inspired by the Periodic
Table of Elements, Itanium. (It sounds like the metal titanium.) 

Intel's branding has been so successful that its main rival in the PC
processor business, Advanced Micro
Devices (NYSE: AMD - news), created a brand name of its own. After years
of selling chips with yawners
like K6 and K6-2+, last year AMD named a chip it had been calling K7
Athlon, apparently from the Greek
word for contest (Decathlon\205get it?). 

In April it followed with a name for its chips aimed at cheaper systems,
Duron. This name is taken, AMD
says, from the Latin words durare, which means to last or to endure, and
on, which means unit. The idea,
AMD says, was to convey a sense of a workhorse-type product whose value
will last over the long term. This
may be an attempt to allay consumer fears that the computers they buy
become obsolete the moment the
check is signed. 

And while these brand names are okay and may make sense with consumers,
they're not nearly as interesting
as the multitude of code names the chip industry uses on products while
they're still in development. Unless
they're really into computers, typical consumers have little use for
these code names. But technology
journalists and industry analysts banter about code-named chips for
months or years before they come to
market, to the point that it's sometimes difficult to remember the new,
official name. 

Take the example of the forthcoming Pentium 4. Before it bore that name,
Intel employees, industry analysts
and the media called it Willamette, the name of a river in Oregon not
far from the company's design facility
outside Portland. Itanium had been called Merced, the name of a river in
Northern California. The current
Pentium III had been called Coppermine, apparently after a river in
Canada's Nunavut region, while a
previous version of Pentium III had been called Katmai, after an Alaskan

So, what's with the rivers? Could someone high up within Intel be
hinting at a love for whitewater rafting or
fly-fishing? Or is the code-naming convention the result of a simple
vote of a committee of engineers? Current
Intel code names making the rounds read like the itinerary of a
whitewater junkie: Deerfield, Foster,
Northwood, Tualatin, Gallatin, McKinley and Madison are rivers in
Oregon, California, Alaska, Montana,
and, in the case of Deerfield, Massachusetts and Vermont. 

AMD's code names follow an apparent formula too: sports cars. Various
flavors of the Athlon processor have
carried code names like Thunderbird, while a chip known internally and
in the press as Mustang is waiting in
the wings for next year, as is a mobile chip known as Corvette. The
Duron chip had previously been known as
Spitfire. Of course AMD Chief Executive Jerry Sanders is known for his
love of fast and expensive cars, but
an AMD spokesman says there's no connection. The only code name that
deviates from the automotive theme
is Sledgehammer, AMD's 64-bit chip for servers and workstations, which
is intended to compete against
Intel's Itanium. 

Before it had either fancy brand names or even macho code names, AMD's
K-generation of processors,
beginning with the K5 in 1994, had their name inspired by Kryptonite,
the fictional element from comic books
that could bring the otherwise all-powerful Superman to his knees. In
this case Superman was Intel, whose
Pentium name was just catching on, but apparently no one took notice of
the fact that Superman is a good guy
and that only villains ever use Kryptonite. Yet the K has endured in the
names of various AMD chips for
nearly six years. AMD still turns out chips in the K6-2 family. 

Before they were Kryptonite, the K-series of processors were designed by
a company called Nex-Gen,
which AMD acquired in 1996. The folks at Nex-Gen took their chip code
names from the names of dinosaur
characters in the children's animated movie The Land Before Time. 

Then there are the code names for the PC processor company bringing up
the rear, Taiwan's VIA
Technologies. Last year, VIA, which previously made only PC
chipsets--chips that moderate the
communications between the main processor and the main memory in a
PC--jumped into the microprocessor
market when it bought the Cyrix chip division of National Semiconductor
(NYSE: NSM - news) and the
processor division of Integrated Device Technology (Nasdaq: IDTI -
news). Now that the company pastes
the Cyrix name on all its processors--the most recent is Cyrix III--its
code names have taken on a biblical
tone: Joshua, Samuel and Matthew. 

While it was still a unit of National Semiconductor, Cyrix found itself
on the dark side of The Force. It was
forced by filmmaker George Lucas to change the code name of a chip it
was developing from Jedi, referring
to the benevolent warrior knights of the Star Wars movies, to Gobi, the
name of the desert of Mongolia.
Another flavor of Cyrix chip was known as Mojave, after a desert. 

So, what's the purpose for all these code names? They let the chip
companies talk about their forthcoming
chips without really talking about them. Companies let slip a few bare
bones facts about chips they have in
development and give it a code name, and the technology pundits take it
from there, speculating, questioning
and prodding those who know the details to say more. It's not unlike
fans of the Star Wars movies knowing
the general plot direction of the next movie, clamoring for more
details. It makes for great ink in industry trade
publications and Web sites but generally matters not one whit to
consumers, who just want their computers to
work like they're supposed to.