Nvidia calls Intel's graphics chip tactics 'aggressive'

Company is complaining loudly about Intel's bundling strategies in the graphics chip market.

Brooke Crothers
Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
3 min read

Advanced Micro Devices is not the only large Intel competitor to rail against Intel's alleged strong-arm tactics.

Nvidia has also complained loudly for years about Intel business practices in the graphics chip market, where Intel commands about 50 percent of the market.

Nvidia is the world's leading supplier of "discrete," or standalone, graphics chips but takes a distant second place in overall market share to Intel, which supplies "integrated" graphics built into the chipsets that accompany all of its processors. Mercury Research estimates the total market for graphics chips, including integrated graphics, at almost $10 billion in 2009.

In the third quarter, Intel had 53 percent of the graphics chip market, up from the 49 percent share in the same period last year, according to Jon Peddie Research, which tracks the graphics chip market. Nvidia took about 24 percent, down from the 28 percent in the third quarter of last year.

These figures get even more lopsided for Intel when the market is segmented into integrated graphics only. "Put your seatbelt on. They've got 80 percent of the notebook integrated market," said Jon Peddie, president of Jon Peddie Research. Though this is a much smaller and more segmented market than overall PC processor market, which was at the center of last week's $1.25 billion settlement between Intel and AMD, it still shows the level of Intel's dominance, according to Peddie.

Nvidia has taken to lampooning Intel. Here, CEO Paul Otellini is the object of satire on Nvidia's 'Intel's Insides' Web site. Nvidia

Nvidia claims these latter market share figures reflect Intel's "bundling" tactics--the same carrot-and-stick tactics that AMD has cited for years and that were spelled out in a complaint filed by New York's attorney general earlier this month.

Intel is trying to impede competition on two chipset fronts, according to Nvidia. One front is the burgeoning market for chipsets in Netbooks--tiny, inexpensive laptops that are typically priced around $350. In this market, Nvidia sells its Ion chipset, which competes with Intel's integrated graphics product.

"Intel's tactics with Ion have been the most aggressive we've seen from a competitor. They have offered the Atom [a total of three chips] for $25, but when the one-chip Atom is used with Ion, it sells for $45," Nvidia CEO Jen Hsun Huang said in a statement provided to CNET. "A customer can't even choose to resell the chipset and use Ion instead. What's the point of Nvidia getting an Intel bus license if it's impossible to overcome Intel's pricing bundles?" he asked, referring the licensing fee that Nvidia pays Intel.

"We'll keep growing as a company, but further action needs to be taken to protect consumers," Huang said.

Intel disputes this. "He's playing a trick of numbers, said Intel spokesman Chuck Mulloy. "He's giving you a $45 list price--that nobody pays--for a part and then a negotiated price (which is more realistic). He's mixing apples and oranges. We have scrubbed and continue to scrub our pricing practices as it relates to chipsets and processors. It's all above cost. And that meets the legal standard worldwide."

In Netbooks, Nvidia has made some headway this year; its Ion chipset has been used in Netbooks from Hewlett-Packard and Lenovo, among others--and Huang concedes this. But Peddie said Nvidia still faces a formidable challenge. "They're nibbling away it at. But it's a pretty big hill to climb," Peddie said.

In the second front of Nvidia's most hotly-contested feuds with Intel, the former has halted development of chipsets for Intel's new "Nehalem" processor technology (marketed as the Core i series of chips), following a complaint filed by Intel in February--which Nvidia then countered in March. Intel alleged in its motion for a declaratory judgment that the 4-year-old chipset license agreement with Nvidia does not extend to Intel's future-generation processors with "integrated memory controllers," which includes Intel's newest Nehalem Core i processors.

"It's meant to get Nvidia to cease and desist from citing that they have a license," Peddie said. "That's an interesting tactic because if the court rules in favor of keeping Nvidia from saying they have a license, it also creates the burden on the OEMs [PC makers] of not wanting to get in a crossfire between Nvidia and Intel," he said.

Intel again disputes this. "It's not seeking to prevent them from doing anything. For well over a year and including mediation, we argued with Nvidia about their rights under that agreement. And we tried multiple times to reach an agreement. And we could not," Mulloy said. "We asked the court to tell the parties what the agreement means. At the end of that process, we'll work with them and try to figure out what to do next."

Note: Mercury Research numbers were provided by Nvidia.