At the heart of Intel’s Core i7, some branding issues live on

Long before the iPhone, iTunes or even the iMac, there was the i586.

Back in the 1970s, putting an “i” in front of something didn’t constitute much of a brand, which is why – after going through a lawsuit with AMD where the court concluded numbers couldn’t be trademarked – Intel decided to give the first processor in the 80×86 series a name that sounded strong, like titanium. That’s how the Pentium was born, and Intel’s announcement Tuesday that its next major PC chip would be called Core i7, you can see a nod to several elements of its marketing legacy.

Core has the advantage of being a real word, and one that implies strength. It also has the disadvantage of being a real word, which can be harder to associate with a single organization. Not to mention the fact that microchips are made up of cores, and both Intel and AMD have been able to offer little innovation for the past several years apart from adding additional cores to their products. Right now we’re seening a lot of dual-core chips, and even quad-core, but what happens down the road? Will Intel executives really start referring to an eight-core Core?

Intel says Core will be based on a new microarchitecture – in other words, a new technical core at the core of Core. But Intel had a hard enough time trying to market the advantages of its NetBurst micoarchitecture. In fact, last week marked the end of NetBurst-based products, and Core seems to owe more to previous generation microarchectures like Pentium Pro or Pentium III-S. The Core microarchiecture will reportedly focus on energy efficiency, but Intel’s performance per watt metric has yet to overshadow the focus on clock speed and efficiency. That’s why the promise of an integrated memory controller and increased scaleability will be the more important areas of emphasis once Core i7 comes out.

Core i7 will be aimed at high-end desktop customers. A year ago, that would have meant Intel would be promoting the chip, the chipset and other associated technologies under the vPro brand, which it was using for its business customers. Recently, however, Intel admitted it will be de-emphasizing the vPro name. That may be a mistake, because even if vPro didn’t catch on with OEMs, the idea of emphasising the overall collection of chip technologies may give Intel more bang for its marketing buck than to focus on the chip itself. The platform approach means you have a variety of small pieces that contribute to the overall value of the product line.

Perhaps the important thing for Intel is not to worry so much about branding. Pentium is an extremely hard act to follow, and in the cutthroat sector of PC hardware the OEMs are likely to trumpet their own names first. If Intel can really come up with the kind of innovation that improves the way corporate customers use their desktops, no one will have any trouble remembering who’s behind it.

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