John G. Spooner
Nvidia, a maker of graphics chips, on Friday announced plans to create a version of its nForce chipset for Intel processor PCs. That's something Nvidia couldn't legally do in the past but can do now, thanks to a broad patent swap with Intel.
A chipset is a PC's nervous system; it stewards data as it travels through the machine.
The patent swap will help give the chipmaker access to a broader swath of the chipset market. Nvidia—along with ATI Technologies, its rival in the market for graphics chips—entered the PC chipset business several years ago in an effort to remain competitive as desktop and notebook PC makers moved to so-called integrated graphics chipsets, which incorporate graphics processors.
Despite Advanced Micro Devices' efforts to encourage companies to build chipsets for its processors, Intel still dominates the PC processor space, with around 82 percent market share.
Intel's large processor share, in turn, bootstraps shipments of other companies' chipsets, making it important for manufacturers such as Nvidia to offer chipsets for both Intel and AMD processors.
But despite the fact that its nForce chipset has been popular among owners of AMD PCs, Nvidia wasn't able to build a version of the chipset for Intel processors until now because it lacked a license for Intel's front-side bus, the pathway for shuttling data back and forth to the processor.
The agreement between the two chipmakers—which spans years, product lines and product generations, the companies said in a statement—also grants Nvidia a multiyear license to the Intel bus, paving the way for an nForce for the latest Pentiums.
Nvidia didn't announce details on when it might begin offering nForce chipsets or which types of PCs the sets would fit. However, when the company does start offering them, it will face stiff competition from Intel—which makes chipsets and motherboards for its own processors—as well as from several other chipset manufacturers. ATI, Nvidia's chief graphics rival, along with Acer Labs, SiS and VIA Technologies, all have agreements with Intel to build chipsets for PCs based on its chips, and thus offer numerous chipsets for Pentium processor PCs.
Intel still enjoys a lion's share of the chipset market and lately has begun viewing chipsets as a much more important part of its business, as it can use them to add new features to PCs and thus boost processors sales. It also aims to make its chips more attractive by bundling them with new elements, such as wireless modules. Centrino, its chip bundle for wireless notebooks, is one such example.However, Nvidia and other chipset makers have an audience in submarkets, including smaller PC manufacturers and enthusiasts who build their own PCs.
Yet Intel's licensees have proved more aggressive than the chip-making giant, adding new technology more quickly (which has helped them gain the loyalty of enthusiasts) and building speedier graphics into their chipsets. Thus they have able to carve out niches in the business. ATI's Radeon IGP chipset, for example, has been used in numerous notebook PCs.
Still, Intel, which once protected its bus technology much more closely, leading it into legal battles with Via Technologies, regards its agreement with Nvidia as a positive for its customers.
"Our view is that it'll give our customers another choice...and a choice from a company with a very good reputation," said Intel spokesman Chuck Mulloy.
Financial terms of the agreement were not disclosed.