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S3 to go after Intel next?

Patents that S3 acquired from a defunct chipmaker may provide the basis of a claim against the chip giant.

Although S3 has primarily been known as a graphics chip vendor, the company may increasingly become associated with patent litigation.

Three patents that the company acquired earlier this year in a blind auction from defunct chipmaker Exponential may provide the basis for a patent claim against chip giant Intel, according to a prominent patent analyst.

If a suit were filed, it would be the second major patent case for S3 this year. And, like the existing case, a suit against Intel would revolve around patents that S3 acquired from another company a scant few months earlier.

The chief patent in question lays out an efficient method for designing a microprocessor that can read both Reduced Instruction Set Computing (RISC) instructions, and Complex Instruction Set Computing (CISC) instructions, according to Richard Belgard, a patent consultant associated with MicroDesign Resources. With this patent, a chipmaker could produce a processor that could understand programs written for a variety of processors. Two other patents relate to similar issues.

Intel's Merced chip employs a similar design to what is described in the Exponential-S3 patent, said Belgard. The Exponential-S3 patents, however, pre-date Intel's Merced's designs, which lays the basis for a claim. In patent law, a patent holder does not have to show that another party copied or deliberately infringed a design. They only need to show priority in time.

Intel's interest in the Exponential patents, and the potential leverage the patents gave S3, has been known for a while. Intel bid on the patents when Exponential auctioned them off earlier this year. S3 won the auction with a bid of close to $10 million. Digital, which was locked in a heated legal battle with Intel at the time, also submitted bids, sources said.

The exact nature of the potential conflict, however, only came clear when Intel showed off a block diagram of Merced at the Microprocessor Forum, said Belgard. It was then that the similarities between the Intel design and the Exponential patents, in his mind, became tangible.

"When I saw that, I almost fell off my chair," he said.

Neither S3 or Intel could be reached for comment. Other sources, however, have said that the two companies have been negotiating behind the scenes on the issue.

While S3 has not filed a case against Intel, it would not be the first for the company this year. Earlier, S3 filed a patent infringement action against competitor Nvidia.

Interestingly enough, if a case were to be filed against Intel, both cases would seem to fit a similar mold.

Both the Nvidia case and a potential Intel case would derive from patents that S3 acquired from third parties a few months before filing suit. The patents at issue in the Nvidia case came from Cirrus Logic. Exponential, meanwhile, sold it patents after it gave up on the idea of producing its own processors.

In any event, more suits are a definite possibility from S3. Walt Amaral, CFO for S3, told CNET in May the company was looking for further patent actions with regard to the Cirrus patents. "We are looking at other competitors," he said. "We acquired these patents in January. It takes a while to figure out the details." Nvidia merely happens to be the first suit the company has lodged, he added.

Belgard has performed consulting work for S3 before but is not associated with any issues regarding the Exponential patents.

Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network, publisher of News.com.