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Ghosts of Cyrix, PowerPC, Transmeta haunt x86-bound Nvidia

For Nvidia to crack the Intel-AMD duopoly, it must avoid four past mistakes, say experts

By Eric Lai
March 10, 2009 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Experts have one question about Nvidia Corp.'s public admission last week that it may offer its own PC processor: What took you so long?

As the only major system player that doesn't offer both a CPU and a graphics processing unit (GPU), Nvidia has no choice today but to get with the program, according to experts.

Not having a CPU wasn't an issue for Nvidia when desktop PCs ruled the world and integrated GPUs were too anemic to support 3-D games, HD video or even Windows Vista.

With powerful GPUs for add-on cards that were embraced by gamer and regular consumer alike, Nvidia's revenues grew from $158 million in 1999 to $4.1 billion last year.

But the chip market has decisively shifted to notebook PCs and smartphones.

Not only is there no room for add-on cards, but with mobile devices, the GPU's raw speed is less important than size, wattage and playing well with other internal components, said In-Stat analyst Ian Lao.

"You could have the screaming-est device ever made on Earth, but if your Wi-Fi is weak because your GPU is too bulky or draws too much juice, then your performance is going to stink," Lao said.

Intel Corp. dominates the integrated GPU market, in part because it can attractively price its bundled CPU and GPU. Nvidia is starting to make some inroads into integrated graphics with its GeForce 9400M chip.

But it has made little headway with its Ion bundle (GeForce 9400M plus Intel Atom CPU) because of Intel's twin strengths.

"Intel has bundled Ion out, so it's having trouble getting traction," said Rob Enderle, president of the Enderle Group.

Intel is also challenging Nvidia on its home turf. Its integrated graphics chips can already support Blu-ray HD video. And Intel is readying Larrabee GPUs for the add-on graphics market.

"Nvidia keeps getting pushed upmarket into an ever-smaller niche, and they don't want to be boxed in," Enderle said.

So if Nvidia must get into CPUs, how should it proceed? Especially if it wants to avoid the mistakes of the three most recently failed challengers to the Intel/AMD duopoly: Cyrix, PowerPC and Transmeta?

Analysts offer these four suggestions:

Don't build a CPU from scratch

Nvidia may claim to have the smartest graphics engineers on the planet, and it may claim that GPUs are morphing into CPUs. But it would have to "commit hundreds of millions of dollars in R&D and lots of time" to build its own CPU from scratch, said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Insight64. "[And] while you're busy doing that, the market would have moved on," Brookwood said.

Nvidia wouldn't just be starting far behind Intel and Advanced Micro Devices -- it would be running straight into a "minefield of potential engineering problems," said Brookwood. For most of its 30-year existence, the x86 processor "evolved without a rigorous architectural definition. As a result, engineers creating a newer version had to ensure that it was compatible with all of the weirdnesses and bugs of the older one."

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