Intel aims for open-source graphics advantage

Chipmaker releases open-source software in an attempt to lure customers away from ATI Technologies and Nvidia.

Intel has released open-source software to give Linux full-fledged support for 3D graphics, a move that could give its graphics chips a leg up over rivals.

Right now, Linux users typically rely on proprietary driver software if they want to use graphics acceleration chips and hardware to improve graphics performance--to speed up displays of 3D tanks in a battle video game, for example.

But this proprietary approach poses ethical, legal and practical problems. Intel sees the open-source move as a way to attract customers to its graphics products--such as its upcoming 965 Express chipset--and give it an advantage over rivals ATI Technologies and Nvidia.

"Having open-source drivers gives us a big edge in this market," said Dirk Hohndel, chief technologist of Intel's Open Source Technology Center. The software, available at a new Web site, is already being integrated with relevant open-source projects, he said.

Intel's effort reflects the curious intersection of technological, legal, social and business motivations that operate in the open-source realm. By participating in the collaborative programming movement, Intel builds ties with outside developers and open-source fans. On the other hand, it relinquishes some control over the software and forgoes the possibility of keeping some coding secrets.

And one politically important ally, the Free Software Foundation, was delighted with Intel's move.

"It's a very important step in the evolution of the industry," said foundation attorney Eben Moglen, who is overseeing a revamp of the General Public License (GPL) that governs the Linux kernel. "The move that Intel has taken, toward making better interoperability with free operating systems by abandoning secrecy, is the sign of a new competitive approach."

More practically, Intel's move is well-timed to dovetail with Red Hat and Novell projects to build fancy graphical interfaces into Linux. The new interfaces, often referred to as "bling" and "eye candy," require 3D acceleration.

Although enthusiasts who favor the glitzy interfaces may benefit from Intel's move, it's not clear whether there will be a benefit for the chipmaker itself. For now, engineering customers using Linux for high-end graphics work, such as mechanical design, rely on add-in graphics cards, not on Intel's integrated graphics. And gaming--the big market for 3D graphics--uses Microsoft Windows almost exclusively.

Intel has a major part of the overall graphics market; it shipped the graphics chips for 40 percent of PCs in the second quarter of 2006. ATI's share was 28 percent, and Nvidia's, 20 percent, according to research analyst Jon Peddie.

Peddie thinks it unlikely ATI or Nvidia will release open-source drivers as a result of Intel's move. Details of the hardware interfaces for graphics chips are the "family jewels...and expose how the chip itself works," he said. "Nvidia doesn't want ATI to know that, and vice versa."

ATI didn't immediately comment on its plans, but Nvidia said it wouldn't change its approach as a result of Intel's move. "At this time, it does not make sense for us to open-source our graphics drivers," Nvidia spokesman Brian del Rizzo said. "We are confident in our ability to provide our customers with the best graphics solutions possible."

But Michael Larabel, who runs the Phoronix Linux graphics site, believes there could be repercussions.

"Intel's move may cause Nvidia and ATI to rethink open-sourcing some areas of their drivers, improving the level of support, or funneling more resources to their Linux department," Larabel said.

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