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Nvidia has balls and may circumvent X86 licences

Part the Second The game is open
Tue Oct 24 2006, 00:52
THIS IS part two of two. Part one can be found here.

NVIDIA IS MAKING a CPU, but the only questions are what kind of CPU, and how the heck is it going to do it. Making an X86 based CPU is not a trivial venture, and there are enough problems to make even a company with the engineering bandwidth of Nvidia cringe. Those problems are mainly called lawyers.

There is no doubt that given engineers, time and money, Nvidia is capable of making an X86 CPU. The Stexar people have done it before, several times in some cases, so it is even less of a problem. It can be financed, and while it may not happen soon enough, it will happen before Nvidia runs out of cash.

The overwhelming problem is patents and other evil things often used to bludgeon the bright eyed and bushy tailed into submission. Any X86 implementation would have to negotiate a minefield of patents and deals just to make it out of the fab. This won't be easy.

To step aside for a moment, let's ask this question. If Nvidia does not make an X86 CPU, but an ARM, PPC or some other ISA? Well, it is, again more than capable, but that would mean giving up the market it has a pretty solid lock on now. Buy the new Nvidia CPU, it doesn't run Windows and won't run your software or games, but the theoretical graphics power is astounding! I can see the lines forming to buy one as soon as they are released. Not. Linux is very cool, but basing a mainstream CPU only on it may not be a bright business move.

Back to reality. What do you do if you want to make an x86 chip? You get a licence from the people who have one, in this case most likely AMD, Intel and a few other people. You could also buy a company that has a licence, but those licences may not be transferable if a company changes control.

There are currently four companies that can make an x86 CPU from what we are told, AMD, IBM, Intel and NatSemi. Those guys are in the clear, and the others like Via and Transmeta are in a greyer area, at least according to my sources. If you want to go X86, at the very least you need to have the blessing of AMD and Intel.

The four above companies have cross licensed each other to the point of silliness and beyond, so they are all OK with whatever they want to do. Related to this, there are four companies with a license to the Intel bus, Nvidia, ATI, SIS and one other, possibly Via, but I wasn't able to pin it down. These may allow you to make chipsets, but it most emphatically does not allow you to make CPUs.

If you want to make an X86 CPU, you have to either have a patent that one of the big four is stepping on and can't live without, usually in the form of something they have already shipped by the tens of millions, or pay a lot of money. Or both. Let's boil it down to blackmail or wads of cash.

For Nvidia, the blackmail option probably isn't going to work, at least not on Intel. If that would have flown, it would have made an 'Intel edition' chipset a long time ago, but that mess is another story in itself. If Nvidia had that card to play, it would have done so, and long ago.

This leaves it with the wads of cash option. It could, and probably will try this one, but if someone shows up at your door and asks to be your fiercest competitor in exchange for short term money, do you say yes? I would guess Intel and AMD are smarter than your average flagstone and will not jump at any generous offer Nvidia makes. They will either point and laugh or more likely set the number so high no one in their right mind would consider making a product with that much IP tax. Of the two, pointing and laughing would be far less cruel.

There is a dark horse option, having IBM fab the parts, something that almost worked with the Cyrix based IBM Blue Lighting CPUs. Given the acrimonious relationship between Nvidia and IBM nowadays, I kind of doubt this will happen. The relationship was a miserable failure when they tried to fab GPUs, so something orders of magnitude more difficult to make does not seem like it is worth a serious look, much less an attempt.

So, what is a green GPU maker to do? If I had to guess, I would say that Nvidia is doing the classic thing and ignoring the patents for now. If it waits to sign whatever agreements they are going to sign, well, that delays it by a year or two. If they start designing now while negotiating, as long as the ink is dry by the time it fabs parts, all is well, it is better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission. I would guess that Nvidia is going ahead and will worry about details later.

One side note, from the sound of it, Nvidia hired the Stexar people but does not appear to have bought the company or any IP they might have had. I have no idea if this is because of baggage, money, or there was nothing there.

In the end, it all boils down to mistakes. AMD let Stexar slip away for a multitude of reasons. Intel let them slip away for politics. Nvidia picked them up and earned the wrath of both their dear friends. Nvidia might end up crushed like a bug by the companies it needs to survive short term. This could possibly be a lose/lose/lose.

Then again, Nvidia might just end up with an astoundingly good team that will easily beat the best of what is out there, negotiate the maze of patents, and end up winning. The future of high performance computing may be a lighter shade of green than AMD, and certainly not blue, dropped e or no.

Stexar might have been rebuffed because it was not all it was cracked up to be, and AMD and Intel will laugh all the way to the bank. Maybe it was right to say no, far stranger things have happened.

Whatever the case, Stexar will have played a pivotal role in the future of X86. It was were involved in the plans of the combined CPU/GPU for all three major players, and could have ended up with any of them. If Nvidia pulls it off, Stexar will have been its greatest achievement. If not, it may have been poison for all three companies in an indirect fashion. Oh how I do love these soap operas. µ


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