Geek Trivia: Spirit of x86

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

What often-unrealized turn of events compelled Intel to give up its x86 naming scheme in favor of its Pentium brand, despite the fact that its x86 architecture still is the most commercially successful instruction set in the history of personal computing?

Put simply, Intel gave up on the x86 naming scheme because it couldn't own it. Specifically, U.S. courts ruled that Intel could not reasonably trademark a number, or a series of letters and numbers, as they had attempted with the i486 microprocessor. Intel tried to block rival chipmaker AMD from releasing a CPU under the label Am486, which Intel viewed as a trademark infringement on its own i486.

At the time, AMD was considered an off-brand alternative to Intel, offering the same or better performance from less expensive equivalent chips that also employed the x86 architecture. AMD adopted a naming scheme that was designed to highlight this equivalence, as you could easily compare an Intel 486 with an AMD 486.

Rather than deal with the same issues with the eventual i586 chipset (and the i686, i786, etc.), Intel simply adopted a trademark it could protect--the Pentium. Rather than go with a "five-eighty-six," Intel combined the Greek root for five, penta, with the Latin suffix ium to give us a brand of microprocessors that sound like they're manufacturer from some bizarre Star Trek element.

The Pentium branding effort was so successful that Intel stuck with it well beyond the i586-equivalent generation of chips, and it has been in constant use since its debut in 1993. The Pentium Pro, Pentium Overdrive, Pentium II, Pentium III, Pentium 4, Pentium M, and Pentium D chips have kept the brand alive, but in the intervening years, Pentium's ubiquity has undermined its status. Once Intel's high-end CPU brand, Pentium has become almost too well known for its own good, and thus has become the mid-line brand of Intel microprocessors -- better than its Celeron brand of low-end CPU, but offering less performance than the new Intel Core 2 brand.

That's not just some full-circle status-shifting, it's brand-boggling Geek Trivia.

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