Nvidia CEO details his beef with Intel

Jen-Hsun Huang describes his company as laser focused on just one thing: visual computing. This is leading to clashes with chipmaker Intel, which is shifting its focus to this area.

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.
Brooke Crothers
7 min read

Jen-Hsun Huang doesn't pull any punches. And Intel is a favorite punching bag these days.

I had a chance to sit down with the Nvidia CEO as he described his company's philosophy and what sounds like the first volleys of a long battle with Intel.

Nvidia CEO and founder Jen-Hsun Huang
Nvidia CEO and founder Jen-Hsun Huang Nvidia

A quick backdrop: Nvidia is the largest graphics chip company in the world, with quarterly revenue in the $1 billion range. Although Intel and Nvidia seem to exist in symbiotic bliss inside many PCs, this doesn't reflect the two companies' business models, which are in many respects far apart.

Intel is a chip manufacturer. Nvidia is not; it's a fabless company. Intel supplies the central-processing unit (CPU), a general-purpose processor. Nvidia supplies the graphics-processing unit (GPU), a special-purpose chip.

Huang is relentless in driving GPU performance--and fearless when challenging Intel. This is admirable, if anything. Even the world's largest PC makers treat Intel with great deference--publicly--because the chipmaker is so instrumental in supplying and defining the core electronics in their PCs (And partly due to the fact that they use Intel advertising dollars).

But Huang will tear into Intel when he thinks it's warranted. And Intel may have reason to be worried about the content of Huang's candor. Despite Intel's colossal size and and clout, Nvidia--not Intel--supplies the defining chip for the most savvy computer users: game enthusiasts. They depend on Nvidia graphics chips to deliver the spectacular visuals of games like Crysis.

And few people will deny that computing is becoming more visual. The GPU is essentially a parallel-computing engine that is extremely efficient at running visual (and scientific) software--that is, many of the popular graphics, video, and photo applications now running on PCs.

Nvidia is set to challenge Intel in the mobile Internet device space. It is getting set to make a big platform play in tiny, fit-in-your-pocket devices with its APX 2500. This "system on a chip" will house everything that comes on a PC circuit board today. Intel is targeting the same market with its Moorestown processor, due in late 2009 or 2010.

One important note: because Huang had made so many references to Intel over the last few months, particularly at the financial-analyst day in April, the interview revolved around this topic. In some cases, I asked pointed questions about Intel and posed hypothetical--i.e. devil's advocate--scenarios. In other cases, Huang volunteered statements about Intel.

Huang has spoken forthrightly in the last few months about Intel. The obvious question is why.

"People thought that I had lost some of my patience with Intel recently. The fact of the matter is that they're out spouting things that are just not true. And I was just correcting that," he said.

"Intel is a big, powerful company," I noted to Huang. "And there aren't many people like you in the industry, who are so blunt about Intel."

The whole idea that the PC industry is good, better, best, faster microprocessors, more memory--that psychology of the PC industry is so yesterday.

His reaction: "Because they are Intel. Because they are a monopoly. Because they are a market-dominant player. They ought to be held to a higher standard. They shouldn't be able to say that other peoples' businesses are going to die."

Huang, here, is referring to a statement by an Intel executive who recently said current graphics technology (sometimes referred to generally as rasterization) will be replaced by another kind of graphics technology (sometimes referred to as ray tracing), on which Intel is working.

Intel has also been dropping more hints about its upcoming high-end graphics chip, called Larrabee, with relatively few specifics. I asked Huang if he thought there was a reason so few details had been given.

"Larabee is a PowerPoint slide," Huang said. "I haven't met a product on my PowerPoint slide that I don't like. You know, they're floating Larrabee out there just to put a shadow over us, cast a cloud over us. They've already slipped it two years from the time they talked about. They would love to slip it another four years and leave a cloud over me."

"Just to play devil's advocate," I said, "Intel sees the success of the GPU. So it has to crank up its skunk works and develop a fast GPU too (Larrabee). Then Intel, being Intel, has to fill its factories and sell these things. Again, I'm playing devil's advocate here."

Huang's immediate reaction: "You and I have a deal. If you're going to write controversial stuff about what I say, can you write what you just said? Here's what I believe: I believe that the entire world believes that what Intel does is build a factory, stuff that people don't want to buy, and then shoves it down its customer's throats. Just like you said."

Huang also spoke about how the PC industry is shifting away from the CPU-centric vision.

"We would love it if people would buy more GPUs, but the fact of the matter is, we don't have Intel's budget to tell you to buy something you don't need. We're going to let the market decide for itself," he said.

"Selecting the right GPU for the right CPU--and having these two processors collaborate. We call it the optimized PC design," he continued. "Notice, we didn't call it 'increase your GPU' design. Notice we didn't go 'buy more quad cores.' It's not a market benefit message. The optimized PC asks what your work flow is. Take the work flow, and benchmark it on the machine. And decide for yourself."

Huang had a few points to make about changes in PC marketing.

"The whole idea that the PC industry is good, better, best, faster microprocessors, more memory--that psychology of the PC industry is so yesterday," he said. "Not a single person believes it. Sony doesn't believe it. Dell doesn't believe it. HP doesn't believe it. God knows Apple doesn't believe it. Nobody believes it anymore."

Huang elaborated, saying that at the other end of the computing spectrum is the minimalist PC, which Nvidia's APX 2500 system-on-a-chip addresses.

"There's a movement toward 'I want the most minimal of PCs': the ThinkPad (X300)," Huang said. "In the future, if it's not thin like a sheet of paper, it's just too much. There should be no electronics. There should be just one tiny chip. And this computer ought to cost nothing. The display should be the most expensive thing. It's not about the CPU. It's not about the GPU. It's about the computer on the chip."

But Intel, and its capacity to integrate more and more of the PC's function into its chipsets, is never far from his mind. Huang gave a number of examples of companies--as smaller and smaller chip geometries have allowed more and more transistors to be packed into a single chip--that disappeared because they were integrated out of existence. (Think sound chip and multimedia chip companies as just a few examples.)

"Make me...list one single example where Moore's Law is not your enemy today," he said. "At this very moment, the only one we know of is the GPU."

Every year, Huang said, "we're making chips that are twice as big as the (year) before that. And every single year, we deliver an experience that is twice as good as the year before. And every single year, people say, 'It's not good enough. I want more. I want more.'"

Throughout it all, Moore's Law is still Huang's friend, he said.

"Notice in the case of CPUs, people are saying, 'I don't need that many gigahertz,' or 'I don't need that many cores,'" Huang noted. "(CPU makers) are going down that path. And that's why it's possible now to build an Atom CPU. At that point, the technology becomes good enough."

Huang said he is not trying to wish Intel away. He is willing to co-exist. But he doesn't believe that Intel is able to do this. This probably is his biggest beef.

"There are going to be two important processors in the system," he said. "A microprocessor that is used for all kinds of complicated, unpredictable sequential code. And a parallel processor, called a GPU, that is really dedicated toward doing very parallel, very heavy-lifting mathematical operations."

Huang refocused his attention on Intel.

"Intel cannot share the world with someone else. They want the world to have one processor. They don't want the world to have two processors, even if it's good for them. (The Nvidia chip) just happens to be so famous, and just happens to be so popular, and happens to be so delightful that it just really makes them upset. That's an anti-innovation feeling. That's a monopolistic feeling, right? You can't share the world with somebody else."

His attitude borders on paranoid. But in Silicon Valley, the credo "only the paranoid survive," put forth by former Intel CEO Andrew Grove, is followed by many.

"People have been predicting the demise of our company for 10 years now," Huang said. "Intel has been in the graphics business for 10 years. They've been predicting our death for 10 years. They'll be predicting our death 10 years from now."