Technology Tussle: Understanding The Intel/NV/FTC Triangle

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News Posted: Mon, Jul 19 2010 5:29 PM
At the time of this writing, the FTC's investigation into Intel's alleged monopolistic abuses is on hold as the government attempts to negotiate a settlement with the CPU and chipset manufacturer. If these negotiations don't result in a deal by July 22, the case returns to court, with arguments currently scheduled to begin on September 15. Intel is no stranger to these sorts of lawsuits; between AMD and the EU, the CPU giant has been battling such allegations for years.

The lawsuit between NV and Intel, however, rests on different points than the AMD/Intel allegations. Here, the battle is over whether or not Intel's already-negotiated agreements with NVIDIA give the latter permission to produce modern chipsets for the Core i3/i5/i7 processor lines. CNET has an excellent piece detailing the various technologies in question, with additional commentary by Richard Kanter (whose article on PhysX optimizations we discussed here).


To date, the Zune HD has been the highest-profile Tegra launch.

Even if the FTC held that Intel's Atom price structure was an abuse of power and validated NVIDIA's claim to possess a license to produce Core i7 chipsets, it's not clear NVIDIA would materially benefit as a result. The integration of CPU and GPU makes technological sense for everyone; the term 'chipset' is itself becoming obsolete.When NVIDIA launched the GeForce 9200-9400 series, it redefined its chipsets around the integrated graphics solutions they offered. That worked well for the Core 2 series, when OEMs were choosing between Intel graphics or NVIDIA graphics. In the future, OEMs will choose between Intel graphics or Intel graphics with NVIDIA on top. That's worked well for Atom, where ION has been able to cut clear performance distinctions, but NVIDIA may not be able to offer a low-end notebook GPU (think Core i3) that justifies the additional expense.

More Than Chipsets

If we assume that this lawsuit is part of NVIDIA's long-term strategy rather than a corporate axe-grinding, then there's something else afoot. It doesn't make sense for NVIDIA to put a major push behind a desktop/server chipset division; the industry is moving towards a level of integration that NVIDIA can't supply. Similarly, ION is a great idea, but the long-term viability of the segment is completely tied to Intel, and Santa Clara doesn't like to share. Since NVIDIA's already dealing with the fallout related to one Intel licensing issue, it's unlikely that Team Green would bet the farm on another Intel-dependent product.


NVIDIA's Tegra Design.

NVIDIA is currently pumping resources into two potentially lucrative markets. First, there's Tegra/Tegra 2, and the burgeoning handheld/UMPC market. Second, there's the realm of scientific computing, GPGPU, and the Tesla product series. NV has traded shots with Intel recently over just how much better GPU's are compared to CPUs when it comes to certain kinds of operations; the company has a keen interest in positioning GPUs as the 'go to' solution for parallel processing.

If we had to bet, we'd bet NVIDIA is interested in Intel IP that could improve one or both of these product divisions. Even if the FTC and Intel don't reach an agreement by Thursday, we wouldn't be surprised to see all three parties come to a mutually acceptable compromise before the trial actually begins.
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Nvidias best success has been an integrated partnership with a proven CPU market!

To try and compete on their own they might be starting from scratch:P

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acarzt replied on Mon, Jul 19 2010 6:20 PM

They need to hurry up and end this law suit so everyone can move on :-)

Also Nvidia needs to make some sweet chipsets for the Core i7

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bangkokguy replied on Tue, Jul 20 2010 12:50 AM

One part of the Intel-nVidia lawsuit is around licensing the QPI and DMI buses. Even if nVidia prevails it will be a hollow victory for them.

Consider, most of the current desktop and mobile parts connect via DMI to a peripheral component hub (PCH), which has the sata, usb, etc interfaces. There's very little nVidia would be bringing to the table in developing parts which would would connect to the CPU via the DMI interface. No one would connect a GPU to the CPU via DMI.

The current core i7-900 series parts (but not all i7 and no i5/i3) parts connect to the X58 chipset via the QPI bus, but the next generation parts will not These next gen parts will not use the QPI bus but will connect to the PCH via the DMI interface. So again there is no business model that makes sense for nVidia to develop a set of parts that would connect via QPI to the CPU.

The second part of the lawsuit (if I understand it) and the reason nVidia wanted the FTC to examine the case, involved a claim that Intel was improperly bundling the CPU and chipset for the N270 FSB based Atom processors. With the FTC settlement, it would appear that this part of their complaint would be mute and they would be hard pressed to claim and document damages. And the N270 based platforms are end of life for all intents and purposes, so how are they going to connect ION or similiar to future Intel processors.

And I see no way that a court would force Intel to bring back the FSB and there is a perfectly good open spec way to connect discrete GPUs to the CPUs, that is PCIe. And Intel continues, at least in their mainstream mobile and desktop lines to support this.

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M-ManLA replied on Tue, Jul 20 2010 3:08 AM

I still think that Intel should try and buy stocks from Nvidia, like AMD did with ATi, and then we will truly have a war on our hands.

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3vi1 replied on Tue, Jul 20 2010 9:06 AM

>> between AMD and the EU, the CPU giant has been battling such allegations for years.

I know you guys have friends at Intel, but you're really softening the blow here. They're no longer "allegations", since they were proven. Intel has been found to be in violation of the laws and was penalized - not just in the EU, but in Japan and Korea as well.  Also, you don't give $1.25B to someone who's making baseless claims.

>> If we assume that this lawsuit is part of NVIDIA's long-term strategy rather than a corporate axe-grinding

Again, you're making it look like this mess wasn't started by Intel. This Nvidia business all start when Intel sued Nvidia to block them from making i7 motherboard chipsets, right? The Nvidia lawsuit was a countersuit aimed at making Intel honor their contracts (which Nvidia interprets as covering i7).

I can't say for sure who's right in this case.  I'm sure the lawyers on both sides wrote the contracts in such a way as to try to screw the other side out of as much as they could - surely making them an indecipherable mess.  For all we know, the lawyers are in collusion to make money suing each other back and forth.  :)

>> Even if the FTC held that Intel's Atom price structure was an abuse of power and validated NVIDIA's claim to possess a license to produce Core i7 chipsets, it's not clear NVIDIA would materially benefit as a result.

They might not be awarded a huge lump sum, but being able to once again produce motherboard chipsets would definitely benefit Nvidia (and us).

I, and surely a lot of others here, preferred the Nvidia chipset boards. Maybe that's why Intel decided to run them out of the chipset business with their lawsuit? All I can say for sure is that competition wouldn't hurt the price of motherboards.

What part of "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn" don't you understand?

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Joel H replied on Tue, Jul 20 2010 12:58 PM

3vi1,

Le sigh. Having friends at Intel has nothing to do with anything as relates to AMD/Intel antitrust coverage (and I've written a ton of it over the past five years). First of all, you need to understand the reality of the decisions and the bodies that gave them.

Intel has never been declared guilty in a court of law, ever. In the EU, Intel was investigated by DG-COMP. That's an administrative body. DG-COMP fined Intel; Intel is appealing that fine to a judicial body (The Court of First Instance). The CFI has not rendered a verdict, but even if the CFI upholds DG-COMP's decision, it doesn't automatically mean Intel has been found guilty. The court could essentially punt on that issue, by saying something along the lines of "We leave it to DG-COMP to determine what companies have or haven't broken the law."

Neither the Japanese nor the Korean judgements had the weight of law. In Japan, Intel agreed to abide by the FTC's recommendations while simultaneously disputing that any of the alleged conduct had occurred. Intel took more-or-less the same stance in Korea.

Unlike Microsoft, Intel never had to defend its guilt or innocence in a court of law. Keep in mind that the EU has different guidelines than the US when it comes to determining if a company has behaved in an anticompetitive/abusive manner. Specifically, in the EU, it's enough to prove that AMD was harmed by Intel's actions. In the US, AMD bore the additional burden of proving that *consumers* were harmed by Intel's actions. (Intel could still have been charged with violating RICO, but not with acting as a monopoly.)

Being able to produce chipsets gets us nothing. There's very little left for NVIDIA to differentiate on, which was my point.

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3vi1 replied on Tue, Jul 20 2010 9:38 PM

>> but even if the CFI upholds DG-COMP's decision, it doesn't automatically mean Intel has been found guilty.

True. Good point.

>> Intel agreed to abide by the FTC's recommendations while simultaneously disputing that any of the alleged conduct had occurred.

But you have to acknowledge: When you have an army of the best lawyers available, but continually pay billion dollar fines and settlements rather than fight it out to a court judgement - it's almost certain you're doing *something* wrong (and don't want a judgement that will affect your stock more than the payoff).

The news today is that Intel has agreed to change their business practices in return for escaping another fine from the FTC. Believe it or not, that sounds better to me than a fine - I'd rather have them invest the money in the field and compete on price and innovation that keep paying fines with the profits of unfair business practices. Intel has proven time and time again that they can deliver better and better products when they're actually competing. I'll be interested to read what you have to write about it on the 22nd.

>> There's very little left for NVIDIA to differentiate on, which was my point.

But what differentiates brands of toilet papers and tires? Performance and price is all they need to develop a very profitable business. They should have the chance to compete in that market rather than be shut out via legal means (if they're correct in their understanding of the original agreement).

What part of "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn" don't you understand?

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