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Nvidia, AMD vie with Intel over USB 3.0

Spec should be 10 times faster than current connections. AMD and Nvidia say Intel's grip on it could make them late to the game.

UPDATE: AMD and Nvidia aim to wrest control of a crucial PC specification from Intel, arguing that the chip giant is trying to box them out as they move to a new era of faster peripherals.

Intel showed off a prototype USB 3.0 connector and an add-in card last year
Intel showed off a prototype USB 3.0 connector and an add-in card last year. Stephen Shankland/CNET

In play is the USB 3.0 specification, a next-generation high-speed connection standard due in 2009. It is significant not only because all future PCs and devices will use connectors based on the standard but because it will offer 10 times the speed of USB 2.0--used in virtually all PCs introduced in the last few years--or roughly 5 gigabits per second.

Intel formed the USB Implementers Forum in 1995 with other industry players, including Microsoft, "to support and accelerate adoption of USB-compliant peripherals," according to an overview of the specification on the chipmaker's Web site.

"The challenge is that Intel is the specification to anybody that competes with CPUs and chipsets," said a source close to AMD who is familiar with the dispute.

As a result, AMD, Nvidia, Via Technologies and others (not yet specified) could be driven to create their own USB 3.0 specification. "We are going to be forced to create a secondary specification" that would be introduced along with the Intel spec, the source close to AMD said. "To create a new open host controller standard for USB 3.0."

"We are starting development on it right now," the AMD source added. The first meeting of members of the alternate "open" specification is slated to take place next week, a source close to Nvidia said. "We fully intend to productize this spec."

Nvidia and AMD are offering no official comment.

Intel, meanwhile, says it's moving with all due speed.

"Just as with previous generations of USB, Intel is working hard to get the complete spec to the industry with as little delay as possible in order to drive the wide adoption of USB 3.0," the company said in a statement.

The USB 3.0 specification is hammered out in the USB 3.0 Promoters Group, in which Intel is a working fellow. Other members include Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Texas Instruments, NEC, and NXP Semiconductors.

A source close to Intel said AMD and Nvidia are being disingenuous about what they're actually seeking. In short, AMD and Nvidia are seeking technology--referred to as the "host controller" specification--that Intel says is beyond the USB 3.0 specification. "Think of it as a guide to building hardware for USB 3.0. This is the part that Intel invests dollars and engineering man hours in and then licenses to the industry (so far, for zero dollars). We will give this out as soon as it is finished (or close to finished)," the Intel source said.

The AMD source described USB 3.0 as "essentially PCI Express over a cable. And that intellectual property came from the PCI SIG"--the point being that Intel does not have a large intellectual property stake to defend. PCI Express is a data transfer specification for add-in card slots in desktop PCs today. The PCI SIG (Special Interest Group) promotes the Peripheral Component Interconnect specification, a standard used in all PCs today.

The problem, as AMD and Nvidia see it, is that Intel would virtually own the USB 3.0 market--a powerful competitive advantage--for many months if they waited for Intel to release the host controller specification. "Tack on six to nine months. Then we get USB 3.0," the AMD source said.

Intel countered that AMD and Nvidia are not willing to do the hard work that is necessary. "They could spend the time, engineers and money developing their own host controller spec," the Intel source said. "In the past they have chosen to let us do the work and then benefit from the fruit of our labor."

"Intel only gives it out once it's finished. And it's not finished." said the source. "If it was mature enough to release, it would be released." (AMD and Nvidia claim that Intel has working silicon and thus the part of the specification they are seeking is mature enough for release.)

"If you have an incomplete spec and give it out to people, these people will build their chipsets and you'll end up with chipsets that are incompatible with devices. That's what (Intel) is trying to avoid," the Intel source said.

One possible reason for the frustration, the source said, is that Intel is "a little bit behind and that's what might be causing some of the resentment. You could take the opinion that Intel is giving stuff out for free and people are complaining because (Intel) isn't giving it out fast enough," this person said.

"We're not doing anything differently now than we did with USB 2.0 and USB 1.1," he added.

AMD rejects this argument because people at the company were around when the earlier 1.0 USB specification came out and claim that Intel stonewalled back then too. Intel denies the assertion.

A separate specification--though designed to be compatible with the Intel USB 3.0 spec--has the potential to create incompatibilities, the source close to AMD said. "This is not good for users. But we have no choice."