SAN MATEO, Calif. Intel Corp. appears to be more willing to license its Pentium 4 bus to known and would-be chip set makers as rival Advanced Micro Devices gains ground.
Several well-known chip set and aspiring third-party chip set suppliers including Via Technologies Inc., Acer Laboratories Inc. and Micron Technology Inc. are in negotiations to gain the right to add Pentium 4 hooks to their northbridge chips, the heart of the chip set that connects the processor to the memory subsystem. Others such as graphics chip maker Nvidia are also potential candidates to receive a bus license.
So far, the only announced recipients of the Pentium 4 bus license are graphics chip maker ATI Technologies Inc. and ServerWorks Corp. ATI, which received the license as part of a legal settlement with Intel, is expected to merge graphics with core logic, while ServerWorks is collaborating with Intel on an off-the-shelf chip set for servers that will include support for double-data-rate DRAM.
Others may soon follow. Micron, which has developed its Mamba chip set with L3 cache for the AMD Athlon platform, is trying to close a licensing deal with Intel before a planned chip set-related announcement at the Intel Developer's Forum (IDF) next month, according a spokeswoman from Micron (Boise, Idaho).
Micron has dipped its toe into chip sets in the past, though it never commercialized its products because it lacked a bus license from Intel. It has been a strong proponent of the use of DDR DRAMs as main memory, and more recently has proposed using embedded DRAM as L3 cache in the northbridge. The company also obtained graphics processing technology through an acquisition, but has not built a standard graphics IC for sale.
The Micron spokeswoman provided no hints about what kind of chip set technology Micron would talk about at IDF, but she confirmed that negotiations with Intel are taking place. "We do need to have a final agreement, and that's still in the works," the spokeswoman said. "We have no bias toward AMD. We want to be in all these spaces."
An Intel spokesman declined to discuss Micron's status.
Meanwhile, Taiwanese chip set suppliers Via and Acer Labs, which have agreements in place to support AMD's processors, are also trying to forge agreements with Intel, though their progress is less clear. Both companies are pushing to develop chip sets supporting DDR, which most DRAM manufacturers plan to produce in volume starting this year if demand takes off.
Eric Chang, director of product marketing for Via's Fremont-based U.S. division, would only speak in vague terms of the company's status with Intel. "We have a plan to support future processors in the second half (of 2001)," he said. "With our having a 45 percent market share, no CPU vendor can neglect us."
Whether Via has seen its share jump 30 points in a year is debatable. When including the northbridge in the definition of a chip set, Via's market share would be much lower, said Mike Feibus, an analyst with Mercury Research (Scottsdale, Ariz.)
Nevertheless, Via did gain ground in chip set market share last year while Intel lost some, largely because it came out with a chip set that links to PC-133 DRAMs, while Intel fumbled trying to support the less popular Rambus DRAM. Via was "definitely in the right place with the right product at the right time," Feibus said.
Meanwhile, Acer Laboratories is also itching to provide DDR-enabled chip sets for the Pentium 4, though the company is being cautious about disclosing its plans without having Intel's cachet. "We intend to have the legal right. How to get the legal right is something I can't talk about in detail," said Fred Leung, associate vice president of sales and marketing for ALI's San Jose, Calif.-based subsidiary.
A spokesman from Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel said the company's policy on licensing is to make sure the other party has something to bring to the table. "Our stance is that we're always open for discussion of like technology for like value," he said.
Analysts said it would behoove Intel to grant the licenses to third-party vendors, but that Intel is still debating to what extent to support third-party chip set vendors.
"From everything I can see there's a division at Intel," Feibus said. "There's a camp that wants to get value for its intellectual property and there's a camp that wants to make sure every generation of Pentium has competitive platforms. I think that (latter) logic is making some headway, particularly as we move toward more integrated products and as AMD, which is happy to license to anyone, gains market share."
There's evidence that has already started to happen. Last year, Intel and Via settled a lawsuit Intel brought against the Taiwanese chip maker over chip sets that linked with the Pentium III, though Feibus said the real problem was coming to terms over how much Via would have to pay.
And recently ATI Technologies Inc. obtained a P4 license as part of a cross-licensing agreement that settled litigation between the two companies. It's not uncommon for Intel to sign broad cross-licensing agreements that include the P4 bus, but ATI, like most graphics chip makers, is interested in providing integrated chip sets that include graphics functionality for Pentium 4 systems, observers said.
Nvidia, for one, is headed down that path. The company has already announced it provides a media communications I/O chip along with the graphics controller for Microsoft's Xbox game platform. And it claims to have good rapport with Intel, which provides Nvidia with its processor road map and uses its G-force processor when it showcases its Pentium 4 systems.
"We're going to have to get into that market, and we have the pieces to do it," a Nvidia spokesman said. "It's going to have to come sooner than later."