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Nvidia plans to enter Mac graphics chip market

The current graphics chip darling says it will shift its attention to the market as competition in the Mac graphics chip world heats up.

!ee eds update 8:46 am, changes "3DLabs" to "Intergraph" in graf 22 --> Competition in the Mac graphics chip world is heating up, with current graphics chip darling Nvidia saying it will shift its attention to the market.

Nvidia is starting to promote its latest chip, the GeForce2 MX, for use in Macintoshes. Although it can be used in PCs, the chip is compatible with Macs, a first for Nvidia. To penetrate the market, graphics board makers will have to adopt the GeForce2 MX. Still, Nvidia's apparent Apple efforts, combined with efforts by competitors, highlight the re-emergence of the Mac.

"The message we're trying to get that the Mac market is important to us," said Dan Vivoli, Nvidia's senior vice president of marketing. "What that means is at some point in the future, we expect to see a GeForce Mac product."

Meanwhile, 3dfx, another graphics chipmaker, plans to have its first Mac-specific graphics boards on shelves this month. The company had earlier made drivers available that allowed its PC-centric Voodoo3 board to be used on a Mac.

The moves by 3dfx and Nvidia signal a tougher battle for ATI Technologies, which has owned the Mac graphics market in recent years.

"I think Mac end users want to have the same choices PC users have had," said Bryan Speece, director of Macintosh business development for 3dfx. Speece said the company will show a host of programs running on its Voodoo4 and Voodoo5 boards at the upcoming Macworld Expo in New York and will ship products later this month.

ATI says it's ready for the competition.

"We've been competing with others behind the scenes for years," said ATI Macintosh product manager Deanna Perkins. "Although it may seem this way, we don't have any exclusive deals. We won all of our contracts on an individual basis."

Who's who in the Macintosh graphics chip market:
ATI Technologies - The reigning king of the Mac market as the chipmaker inside Apple models and the leader in third-party accelerators. The firm has been struggling in the broader PC market.

3dfx - Announced its intention to support Macintoshes more than a year ago, with its first Mac-specific products to debut at Macworld Expo this month.

Nvidia - The current darling of the PC graphics chip world said its new mid-market PC chip is the first that can support the Mac market. But Nvidia has yet to announce when it will ship Mac products.

Perkins would not comment on what design plans ATI has for upcoming Macintosh designs but said the company has a team focused on Apple products and has been working closely with Apple.

"We work with Apple years out to ensure that what they're thinking about we incorporate onto our chips," Perkins said. "I think there is a lot of stuff we'll be doing with Apple going forward."

Speece said 3dfx has had discussions with Apple about its plans for the Macintosh, and the company would like its graphics boards to remain an option to buy for people who configure PowerMacs.

"We want to get (our boards) into the hands of as many people as possible," Speece said.

Nvidia's Vivoli would not comment on his company's plans to grab a spot in Apple's product lineup. He said the company is not planning to announce any products at Macworld and that some work remains to bring an actual Mac product to market.

"We're a little ways off from having something available," he said, adding that Nvidia hopes eventually to be the premier graphics chipmaker for the Mac market.

"When we enter it, we plan to enter it in a big way," he said.

Speece countered that Nvidia has announced Mac support only on a chip aimed at the middle of the market, while its products target the high end as well. "We're bringing our highest-performance chips to the Mac platform," Speece said.

Mercury Research analyst Dean McCarron said Nvidia's entry to the Mac world makes sense.

"Nvidia has been climbing in terms of presence in the market," McCarron said. "Apple is not a huge market compared to the PC, but it's an important (one)."

McCarron said the move should also help Apple because Nvidia is not aligned with a single graphics board maker, meaning it could potentially provide chips for a variety of companies to offer add-in boards. McCarron also expects Nvidia to get consideration from Apple for use in its computer designs, given the company's high penetration rate in the PC world.

The graphics chip market has been rapidly consolidating, and Nvidia has been gaining at the expense of 3dfx and other rivals.

ATI and 3dfx have both been hit with component shortages and other problems, with both companies issuing profit warnings for the current quarter.

This year alone, five companies have been acquired or have shifted their focus away from graphics chips: NeoMagic, S3, Intergraph, ArtX and Gigapixel. McCarron said the shakeout is largely over.

"I suppose the potential exists for one or two more players to merge or go away," he said.