Semiconductor giant Intel shipped its billionth microprocessor this year and could reach its second-billion chip milestone within four years, according to Mercury Research. The United States-based research firm said that Intel crossed the billion processor mark in April, based on the chipmaker's combined global shipments with personal computers, laptops and servers for the past two decades. That achievement came about 25 years after Intel launched its x86 architecture for central processing units (CPUs) in June 1978. The company's original 16-bit 8086 chip contained 29,000 transistors and ran at five megahertz. By comparison, the latest Intel Pentium 4 processor is packed with 55 million transistors and runs more than 600 times faster at 3.06 gigahertz. Intel said the original IBM PC in 1982 came with an updated version of the 8086 chip, the 8088 processor, designed by the chipmaker's engineers in Haifa, Israel. The IBM PC helped spawn a multibillion-dollar computer chip industry that Intel continues to dominate. 'The 8086 chip ushered in a tremendous revolution in computing,' said Pat Gelsinger, Intel senior vice-president and chief technology officer. 'It's the chip most responsible for starting what we take for granted today - powerful personal computers that support instant communications, an ability to see the world through the Internet, and computing power sitting on our desk equivalent to mainframes of a few years ago.' Mr Gelsinger conceded that Intel's x86 CPU design 'was never the most elegant of instruction-set architectures', but described the platform as 'the most scalable, extensible and venerable of them all'. Computers built with off-the-shelf parts and Intel processors have recently moved up the ranks of the world's fastest supercomputers, with two of these systems in the top 10 for the first time. This field used to be the lofty domain of high-performance computers based on either MIPS (million instructions per second) or Risc (reduced instruction-set computing) chips such as those made by IBM and Sun Microsystems. Rivals Advanced Micro Devices, VIA Technologies and Transmeta have all developed x86-compatible processors and software to compete with Intel in various segments of the computer market. Intel's chips have been inextricably linked to Microsoft's Windows operating system - commonly known as the 'Wintel' alliance - because of their dual dominance of the PC industry. Mercury Research predicted that Intel would ship its next billion CPUs far faster than the first billion, hitting the new landmark as early as 2007. Mr Gelsinger attributed the growth to the company's efforts to extend the x86 architecture and broaden its range of applications. At present, Intel architecture processors - as descendants of the 8086 chip have come to be called - form the foundation of an expanding range of products. Intel silicon is also found inside hand-held computing devices, networking and communications gear, and point-of-sale terminals and medical equipment. Intel's global revenues last year rose 0.8 per cent to US$26.8 billion, after a 21 per cent decline in 2001. Demand from China bolstered the chipmaker's results, with the mainland's contribution jumping 37 per cent year on year to US$3.2 billion. The fabrication techniques used to produce them have also evolved. In the 1970s, the connections etched into the silicon were about three microns wide. Intel's most recent chips have connections that are 90 nanometres in width. A micron is a millionth of a metre, and a nanometre measures a billionth of a metre. Such shrinkage has enabled Intel to lower power consumption and heat while boosting performance and further reducing the chips' size. Intel has stepped up efforts to create single-chip mobile phones after releasing its PXA800F microprocessor, which combines cellular and computing components on one piece of silicon.