The market for graphics chips, which drive the 3D image on a computer screen, has been until recently the only significant PC chip market, excluding memory chips, where Intel wasn't a dominant player. That changed two weeks ago when Intel jolted the PC industry with the introduction of AGP (Accelerated Graphics Port), a 3D graphics technology expected to deliver a four-fold increase in 3D graphics performance. AGP technology will be used in systems based on the P6 family of processors, systems that will roughly match the performance of workstations from companies such as Silicon Graphics at a fraction of the price.
The AGP introduction served as an alert that Intel is dead serious about getting into the graphics chip business. The plan doesn't come as a surprise, considering that 3D graphics chips are expected to become standard equipment on most PCs and explode the market for 3D graphics technologies. But Intel is also motivated by a need to remove the limitations of the existing PCI bus architecture that is the standard for Intel-based systems: most current personal computers would choke on the large amount of 3D data that users are beginning to expect and AGP is intended to alleviate those bottlenecks.
Having unveiled the basic AGP technology in hopes that the entire graphics chip industry would adopt it, Intel has at least three projects of its own--in various stages of progress--for developing graphics chips, said a source familiar with Intel's activity in this area.
The introduction of an Intel-branded 3D chip would follow a typical Intel game plan whereby the company creates a market for new technology by promoting designs and then builds the products themselves. "Intel has a strategy where once they announce a major technology, they are the first in line with a product," said Frank Dzubeck, president of Communications Network Architects, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm.
But Intel hasn't officially announced its plans, and observers have varying opinions as to how the company will implement its 3D graphics strategy.
"We believe they will do some kind of value-add 3D. They will do 3D rendering within the chipset [instead of a distinct chip]," said Dean McCarron, an analyst at Scottsdale, Arizona-based Mercury Research. This might manifest itself in an inexpensive 3D PC design from Intel, he said.
Others believe that Intel is targeting only the very high end of the 3D graphics market and will partner with another company to deliver an actual chip.
Graphics chip vendors are watching closely since what Intel decides to do may dictate their fate in the 3D market.
"AGP does play well for Intel developing its own [chips]," admitted a spokesman at S3, a major graphics chip vendor and supplier of graphics chips to Intel's motherboard business. "What we think they're looking at is very high-end stuff," he added. S3 believes that Intel will not compete directly with it in its principal market--mid-range, mainstream graphics accelerators.
What is clear is that Intel is making sure that AGP-based 3D graphics chips are coming, either under its own label or someone else's, leaving its fingerprints all over the graphics chips business.