The graphics chip has become one of the big legal battlegrounds for Intel.
To get a better understanding of what all of the legal wrangling is about, I asked an expert to describe the technology underlying the court battle between Intel and the world's largest purveyor of standalone graphics chips, Nvidia.
To date, the antitrust actions against Intel have focused on the sales practices for central processing units, or CPUs, an area where Intel and Advanced Micro Devices have been skirmishing for decades. In December, however, the Federal Trade Commission, in effect, inserted itself into the legal wrangling between Intel and Nvidia when it alleged in a complaint that Intel was engaged in anticompetitive practices in the graphics chip market.
Intel and the FTC are currently trying to negotiate a settlement, with a deadline of July 22. If they don't reach an agreement, the FTC case against Intel will go to trial, slated to begin on Sept. 15. The suit (Intel) and countersuit (Nvidia) are expected to be addressed in some form if there is a settlement, in addition to the longstanding AMD issues.
Nvidia, the Santa Clara, Calif.-based neighbor of Intel, is the world's leading supplier of "discrete," or standalone, graphics chips but takes a distant second place in overall market share to Intel, which supplies "integrated" graphics built into the chipsets that accompany all of its processors.
One of the core contemporaneous issues in the legal squabbling is Intel's Nehalem design. (Nehalem is Intel's latest chip architecture and includes processors such as the Core i3, i5, and i7.) With the introduction of the Nehalem chip architecture, Intel has asserted, via court filings, that Nvidia, in effect, does not have the right to attach chipsets to Intel CPUs anymore--locking Nvidia out of a potentially large market. (Intel claims it has the legal right to do so because the technology has changed.) Before Nehalem-based chip designs emerged, Nvidia had supplied chipsets for Apple's MacBook, MacBook Air, and MacBook Pro, for example. Now, it is prevented from doing so.
And the dynamics of the market are changing quickly as Intel yanks the graphics function out of the chipset (which is a separate piece--or pieces--of silicon) and moves it onto the CPU itself. In other words, what used to be a CPU is now, for Intel, the functional equivalent of both a CPU and GPU, or graphics processing unit.
Via an e-mail exchange, I asked David Kanter about the technology behind the case. Kanter is an editor and analyst at Real World Technologies, which covers chip technology in depth.
The key technological issues in the case are the connection technologies. Can you describe them?… Read more