Geek Trivia: Spirit of x86

Why did Intel give up on the X86 naming scheme and adopt the Pentium trademark?

If someone were to force you to sum up the modern world in three or fewer alphanumeric characters, you could make a pretty good case for the optimal response being x86. As in, the x86 instruction set which has informed the design and function of microprocessors since 1978. The x86 architecture has the most successful and ubiquitous microprocessor lineage in the history of computing, and the last 30 years of the personal computing revolution have been dominated by x86-compatible hardware and software.

Not bad for a stopgap measure.

The x86 instruction set was first used in the Intel 8086 microprocessor, which went to market in 1978. The hidden story there is that the 8086 was supposed to be a temporary, headline-grabbing product designed to keep Intel in the processor race while its massively behind-schedule iAPX 432 microprocessor (Intel's first 32-bit CPU, which didn't go retail until 1981) was completed. The 8086 instruction set was crudely backward-compatible with the popular Intel 8085, so long as you didn't mind rebuilding your hardware.

A year after its release, the 8086 gave way to the 8088, which was basically the same chip but with an onboard 8-bit data bus -- making it an economical CPU as it didn't require so many expensive ancillary chips and boards to produce acceptable performance. The Intel 8088 was the CPU found in the first generation of IBM PCs; thus, the x86 architecture became the unspoken standard of all IBM-compatible PCs. With the flood of IBM clones (thanks to the famous Purple Book) combined with the weight of Big Blue pushing out all rival PC architectures, x86 became -- and largely remains -- the most important microprocessor instruction set in the world.

While the x86 origins of the instruction set wouldn't be obvious in many Intel chip designations for a few years, the legacy was eventually reemphasized for such market-leading chips as the 80186, 80286, 80386 (i386), and 80486 (i486) -- CPUs that were considered among the best available right up until the early 1990s. Then, in 1993, Intel dropped the x86 callouts in favor of its still-in-use Pentium brand -- for reasons many folks aren't aware of.


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