Determined to be the first company to take a 16-bit processor to market, Intel pushed the 8086 from design to shipment in about 18 months.
“People today are shocked when I tell them the schedule,” recalled Jim McKevitt, one of the lead engineers. The design team worked many nights and weekends at a rented facility on Walsh Avenue in Santa Clara to push the project across the finish line. The chip made it to market on time in June 1978.
The 8086 was the first 16-bit processor and used a pioneering architecture that afforded new levels of performance and flexibility. Just as importantly, Intel approached the processor as part of a larger system — the 8086 came out with an unprecedented suite of supporting products and developmental tools to help people use it and was designed to be the first in a series of forward-compatible chips that would use the same architecture.
The combination of hardware, software and support was the beginning of something new — but the market didn’t quite understand its potential yet. At the time, microprocessors were still a nascent industry. Buyers did not have fully formed notions of what they valued in a processor, and designers and marketers were trying to address those nebulous priorities as best they could. By December 1979, competing products hit the market and Intel’s 8086 sales lagged.
Intel responded with Operation Crush, a pioneering solution marketing campaign that would change the way technology was marketed, used and perceived. The campaign was driven by the understanding that what customers really wanted was the best possible solution to their problems with the minimum level of inconvenience — any specific technology, even one as powerful as the 8086, was just a means to a customer’s end.
Drawn up in December 1979 and executed largely over the course of 1980, Operation Crush set out to explain the strengths of the 8086 – and Intel – in terms of what clients could do with them.
The campaign was as big an undertaking as the development of the 8086 itself, with an advertising budget of $2 million (the company had never spent more than a few hundred thousand at the time). Over a thousand employees would be involved, working on committees, seminars, technical articles, new sales aids and new sales incentive programs. The head of Operation Crush, Bill Davidow, recalled the companywide commitment to making the campaign happen: “I think that’s one of the things that was amazing about Intel.”
Operation Crush proved so successful that it became a common topic in marketing courses — The New York Times later dubbed it “legendary.” Having begun with the hugely ambitious goal of landing 2,000 design wins for Intel, the campaign brought in around 2,500. The most important was the sale of the 8088, a variant of the 8086, to power the first IBM PC. According to at least one Silicon Valley historian, that victory “signaled the end of the microprocessor wars almost before they began, with Intel the clear and dominant winner.”
This story is among a series running to celebrate Intel’s 50th anniversary in 2018.