X-22, come in?

CNET News.com's Michael Kanellos explains how the Rambus chip trial has unleashed a tsunami of good old-fashioned high-tech lunacy.

Michael Kanellos
Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
5 min read
For some, it's the eradication of tropical diseases. For others, it's analyzing the effects of free trade on the global economy. And for still others, the issue that keeps them up at night is the applicability of the 1990 patent application on multiplexed bus structures.

The Rambus trial is under way in Richmond, Va., a seminal event for the entire memory industry. If Rambus proves German memory maker Infineon infringed its patents, the verdict could pave the way for billions in royalties. Not bad for a company with around 200 employees. If it loses, the entire PC industry will breathe a little easier when it comes to costs.

But just as important, the trial has unleashed a tsunami of good old-fashioned high tech lunacy. Memory groupies trade shrill and technically ornate insults on chat rooms. Rumors (totally erroneous) that the company executives could face criminal indictments help the stock spike, or plummet, by 30 percent in a single day.

One retailer even said that customers are avoiding PCs containing Rambus out of fear their warranties would be voided if the company goes bankrupt. It's completely untrue, but "they want nothing to do with it," said one store manager.

It's like a divorce settlement and an election at an Amiga user's group meeting all in one. Put it another way: That IT guy in your office who seems to equate the Macintosh file system, historically speaking, with the steamboat, desegregation or the Cambrian period? He's sane by comparison. Analyst Peter Glaskowsky once termed it the tech equivalent of gun control.

This sort of frenzied reaction certainly took the honorable Robert Payne, the trial judge, by surprise. Last month, a rumor (later proved true) that he planned to limit the scope of the trial prompted a rash of panicky phone calls to his chamber.

"We finally had to disconnect our telephone," he said. Some of the comments "were really somewhat horrible, accusing the court staff of leaking things and causing people to lose money, and all that kind of thing."

"The Internet has been crazy with the trial," John Desmarais, the lead trial attorney for Infineon, said in a pretrial hearing. "Some days it's really insane stuff for Rambus. Other days it's for Infineon. And the comments that get on there are so off-the-wall sometimes."

Though the scuffle might be new to Virginia's legal world, zealotry is a common staple of high-tech life. Advanced Micro Devices and Apple, among other companies, have a way of polarizing usually normal individuals.

In most industries, of course, this doesn't happen. Individuals in the snack industry don't fire off letters saying, "How can you say Froze Fruit 'invented' coloring raspberry Popsicles blue? Ever heard of Otter Pops, you doofus!!!" No one threatens to cut your throat with the jagged edge of a broken tequila bottle for slandering Fieldcrest bath towels.

Some issues, such as Napster or Microsoft, are obvious topics for heated debates, but obscure ones draw heated reactions as well. Divx might just seem like a video playback medium that failed to catch on. But in 1998, it sparked holy wars among buyers. For some reason, WebTV, a favorite with the 50-plus crowd, provokes strong reactions too.

Hint: Anytime someone suggests that a company can achieve its aims by moving to Canada, as if it is some sort of frozen no-man's-land, you have entered the lunatic fringe.

But most of these civil wars pale in conspiratorial intensity to Rambus. One source at the company recalled that observers were trading angry messages about the company on investor trading boards in 1996, before the company's IPO.

Once at a memory conference I sat next to a high-ranking Rambus executive. Audience members were approaching the microphone. Before a person asked a question, the executive would tell me what the question was going to be. "He's going to ask whether the royalties are voided by disclosure regulations," he'd say. Apparently, he had heard it all before.

So what's the heated debate all about? Memory interfaces. Rambus designed a faster version of traditional computer memory. Rambus claims the patents are so fundamental to the structure of high-speed computer memory that it has a right to royalties on SDRAM, the most common type of memory today; DDR DRAM, a high-speed version of SDRAM; and, of course, RDRAM, memory based directly on Rambus' patents. Infineon disagrees, and claims it played fast and loose with standard-setting organizations to enhance its patents.

Financially, there's a tremendous amount at stake. If Rambus wins, the company could conceivably secure the right to collect $1 for every PC sold for the foreseeable future, according to some estimates.

But, "if the patents are (rejected), which I don't think is an option here, clearly no company is obligated to pay any royalty" on DDR or SDRAM, Avo Kanadjian, senior vice president at Rambus, said in an interview in February. Predictions on the outcome of the trial vary widely.

But more importantly, the trial represents a culture war. To its supporters, Rambus is the ultimate underdog, a small company that virtually reinvented the future of computing. The lawsuits merely represent the company's attempt to retrieve what it rightfully invented. In that light, it's like Apple, a brilliant company that needs to protect itself from plagiarists.

But detractors see the company as an insulated insider. In 1996, Intel plucked Rambus out of semi-obscurity by stating that its future processors would connect to memory based on its designs. The company's rise to stardom came though connections, not necessarily talent. Serial glitches, middling performance benefits and delays have only hardened opinions.

The lawsuits provoke anger as well. Rambus sues companies for a living, detractors say, ignoring the fact that, in the end, ARM and every other semiconductor company that survives on licensing fees and royalties leans on the legal system in the same way. In that light, Rambus is like Apple, a company dependent upon stalwart users who will forgive even the most boneheaded business decisions.

And no one is going to rest until 12 people in Virginia vote.