Opinion: Compaq preparing for end of Alpha

The conflicting, and ultimately damning, reports about the Alpha microprocessor coming from Compaq Computer and Microsoft Corporation this week lead me to believe that Compaq has finally given up on its 64-bit alternative to Intel. Like so many of Intel's one-time competitors, that litter the history of the computer industry like road kill, Compaq has simply decided to pack it in.

It's sad, but it was probably a smart move.

Consider the alternative: Compaq and Microsoft approach the release of Windows 2000, guns blazing, proclaiming Alpha as the high-end solution for corporate servers. Months pass, and Intel finally releases its first 64-bit chip, the IA-64 "Merced". By the end of 2000 (or mid-2001 at the latest), Intel will sell more 64-bit microprocessors than Compaq (and Digital before it) did in almost a decade. It certainly won't be hard. But where does that leave Alpha?

As a failure. An utter and total failure.

Now consider the numbers, which are mind numbing: Since 1993, when the Alpha was first introduced, Digital/Compaq has sold a grand total of 500,000 Alpha microprocessors. Compare this figure to the 100 million Intel and Intel-compatible CPUs that will be sold this year, and the nearly 100 million that were sold in 1998. Here's another point of reference: The Macintosh, which was on a solid decline during virtually this entire decade, blew away Alpha sales during even its worst year. And the entire computer industry press was quick to line up to write death announcements for the Macintosh and its PowerPC processor.

The Alpha received a curious level of praise and admiration even as it failed, utterly, to achieve any marketshare. Of course, the market for high-end servers--where Alpha was initially positioned--is a vastly different market with higher margins and much lower volume. But Alpha quickly succumbed to the same market-driven rush that killed Apollo Computer and nearly drove Sun Microsystems into the ground: The lowly PC has simply escaped the ravages of time, growing more and more powerful even as it became cheaper to own. Today, you can buy sub-$1000 systems that can be used as servers and workstations, and multiple-processor Intel systems are easily out-perform and under-price even the most powerful Alpha system.

Alpha's defenders, of course, will point to the obvious: The chip is a workhorse 64-bit design, which far exceeds the capabilities of any single Intel chip. It was, like so many technological failures before it, ahead of its time. But like the Amiga, NeXTStep, and any other mercurial product you can name, the technological advances and advantages provided by the Alpha will live on in a different form as competitors take up the fight. And the market for UNIX isn't going to save Alpha, not when high-end, and cheaper, alternatives from Intel are available.

So say good-bye to the Alpha now while you can. Because it's only a matter of time before this once-mighty processor takes its place next to the Z-80 and Motorola 68000 in the great computer museum in the sky. It's just too bad it had to go before its time

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