We learned recently that the next version of the Itanium will not be natively x86-compatible.

According to Intel's reference manual, the chip giant is to drop support for x86 software in Itanium 2, codenamed Montecito, and ask developers to use the company's emulation software, IA-32 Execution Layer, instead. The company reckons that this provides better performance and allows the Itanium's die area occupied by x86 hardware support to be used for other purposes -- what exactly it didn't say.

Is this a big problem for Itanium? Unlikely. According to Intel at least, few if any people run x86-compatible software on the chip. And while it does wall off the device from millions of applications, that's not where the chip is either aimed or being used. If you really want to run that x86 application on the Itanium, the emulation layer will allow you to do it, albeit at the usual cost: worse performance. According to Intel, you get 1.5GHz Xeon performance from a 1.5GHz Itanium running x86 software using IA-32 EL.

However, the move marks the end of Itanium's pretensions, widely-trumpeted at the chip's inception back in 1994, to be the next generation of processor destined eventually to supplant the Pentium in the mass market. The chip has also suffered in the last year from IBM and Dell announcing that they were halting production of Itanium-based products, while Sun chopped Solaris' support for the chip six years ago.

On the bright side, HP, Intel's collaborator in the Itanium project from the outset and the biggest maker by far of Itanium-based computers, promised a $3 billion cash injection for Itanium development and support a year ago, and it has substantially shifted its Unix server effort over to Itanium. And an industry group the Itanium Solutions Alliance, was formed last year to co-ordinate support for the chip. The group wants to expand use of Itanium by helping vendors port their applications to the chip's EPIC architecture.

So the upshot for Itanium is that little is likely to change -- but it does mark an interesting milestone on the tortuous path towards acceptance that the high-end chip has taken since it was launched, all those long years ago.