LONDON I am no lawyer and indeed no processor designer or compiler author but there is one aspect of the recently announced Federal Trade Commission suit that is being brought against chip giant Intel Corp. that, being embedded in processor engineering, is intriguing and appears weak.
The FTC alleges that Intel Corp. has been indulging in unfair practices to stifle competition and the FTC is not alone in this. There are cases around the world against Intel that hinge on the alleged use of bundled pricing and other threats and rewards to keep the competition out of PC slots. Were it true it would seem like anticompetitive practice.
However, in this latest suit, the FTC also alleges that Intel secretly redesigned its compiler software in a way that deliberately impaired the performance of competitors' CPU chips. The FTC adds that Intel told its customers that software performed better on Intel CPUs than on competitors' CPUs, but the company failed to disclose that the differences were due largely or entirely to Intel's compiler.
Intel denied these most recent allegations, saying that it "competed fairly and lawfully."
Nonetheless Intel has settled with its main rival, Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (Sunnyvale, Calif.), on a broad set of issues for $1.25 billion, which somewhat undercuts the FTC's case but nonetheless the FTC is uttering warnings about the graphics processing unit (GPU) market, which is gaining in significance. The FTC said "it may seek an order prohibiting Intel from making or distributing products that impair the performance or apparent performance of non-Intel CPUs or GPUs."
Now let is try and see what the FTC is saying here.
Is the FTC saying that Intel has a duty to optimize its compiler software not only for its own processors but also for those of its competitors? And if so, which competitors should get the best treatment, because what is optimized for an AMD processor may not be as good for another x86 maker. So Intel would always be guilty of impairing someone's performance, including its own.
That does seem ridiculous. If I was being paid to create a successful processor-compiler combination I would be duty-bound to try and arrange things to my employer's best advantage and to help differentiate our product combination from those of the competition. If that meant organizing the compiler software so that procedures and the data they require flow smoothly on our processors but might incur a delay on a rival's processor, surely that is the nature of competition. Surely that is competitive rather than anticompetitive.