Intel's sagging 64-bit microprocessor, the Itanium, will get a much needed speed boost in 2003, when the third generation version of the chip debuts at 1.5 GHz. The chip, code-named Madison, is physically similar to today's Itanium 2 design, but features smaller internal componentry and 6 MB of built-in cache, twice as much as the Itanium 2, which will further improve performance. The speed boost couldn't come soon enough, however: The Itanium line is flailing in the market, thanks largely to the long life time and scalability of the company's 32-bit x86 chips, which continue to improve each year.

However, Intel's experience with constantly revving its chips' performance might ultimately help the Itanium line gain ground on 64-bit stalwarts from IBM, Sun and other companies. And the release of Windows .NET Server 2003 in April 2003, which will include a version optimized for Itanium, might jumpstart software development for that platform.

Intel has also learned not to orphan early adopters. The Madison chips, as well as their successors, code-named Montecito, will be socket-compatible with today's Itanium 2 systems, giving customers a simple upgrade path. This also allows Intel to quickly rev its chips, an unusual practice in the high-end market for server-based microprocessors.