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Nvidia to license its graphics technology to device makers

The chipmaker says its GPU technology could show up in other companies' processors for everything from smartphones to supercomputers in a couple years.

Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang describes Nvidia Grid at 2013 CES.
James Martin/CNET
Could Apple tap Nvidia for graphics power in its mobile devices? Maybe, now that the chipmaker has decided to license its graphics technology.

Nvidia on Tuesday said it would begin licensing its GPU cores and "visual computing" patent portfolio to device manufacturers -- a new business model for the company. The technology could appear in a full range of products from phones to supercomputers, the company said, with products likely emerging in 2015, given design and testing requirements.

"It's not practical to build silicon or systems to address every part of the expanding market," David Shannon, Nvidia executive vice president and general counsel, said in a blog post. "Adopting a new business approach will allow us to address the universe of devices."

The move comes as Nvidia grapples with a slowdown in its core PC market and as it faces tough competition in mobile devices. Popularity of smartphones and tablets, as well as better integrated graphics in PCs, have been hurting long-term prospects for the high-end graphics designed by Nvidia. At the same time, Nvidia hasn't gained as much traction in mobile as it had hoped, largely because its Tegra processor previously lacked 4G LTE capabilities.

Nvidia has licensed some of its graphics technology in the past, but it hasn't been a big focus for the company or open to a wide range of companies. Sony licensed Nvidia GPU technology for the PlayStation 3, and Intel pays Nvidia more than $250 million a year to license Nvidia's various patents.

The plan unveiled Tuesday will allow it to address a bigger segment of the market and puts it in competition with ARM Holdings and Imagination Technologies, which don't make chips but license their technology to other companies. Nvidia's advanced graphics technology has long been a big selling point for the company's chips. It's not a stretch to believe other companies that make their own processors -- such as Apple and Samsung -- could seek out Nvidia's graphics.

Nvidia said it will first license the GPU core based on its Kepler architecture. The technology is currently used in shipping GeForce PC GPUs, Quadro workstation graphics, and Tesla supercomputing GPUs. Nvidia's next-generation Tegra mobile processor, codenamed Logan, also uses Kepler.

The company noted that licensees "will receive all necessary designs, collateral and support to integrate NVIDIA's powerful graphics cores into their devices." And licensees of its visual computing portfolio will be able to develop their own GPU functionality while "enjoying design freedom."