Intel announced that its initial foray into standalone graphics chips - the Larrabee Project - is delayed indefinitely. Intel cited developmental setbacks, but it's hard not to connect the dots between the demise of the Larrabee Project and Intel's ongoing legal woes.
Intel spokesman Nick Knupffer stated "Larrabee silicon and software development are behind where we hoped to be at this point in the project." He added "As a result, our first Larrabee product will not be launched as a standalone discrete graphics product."
The statement, in and of itself, may be accurate, but the question is "why?". It seems likely that the Larrabee Project is impacted by Intel's ongoing disputes, particularly the falling out with Nvidia.
Intel under legal siege
If there is one area of the technology sector where there is job security these days, its working for the legal department--especially Intel's. Intel is being challenged, sued, and investigated on a variety of fronts.
The FTC, European Commission, and the state of New York all have ongoing antitrust cases against Intel. The FTC recently discussed Intel's predatory practices with Nvidia, and is exploring whether Intel's lawsuit against its former ally is merely an attempt to stifle competition disguised as a contract dispute.
AMD, Intel's largest rival in the CPU (central processing unit) market, and one of Nvidia's biggest competitors in the graphics chip market as a result of acquiring ATI in 2006, recently reached an agreement with Intel to settle all of the pending litigation between the two. Intel agreed to pay AMD $1.25 billion and the two entered into a long-term cross-licensing agreement, but patching things up with AMD hasn't eliminated any of the other ongoing legal battles facing Intel.
Intel and Nvidia originally entered into a strategic alliance in 2004, agreeing to share patents and work together. The purchase of ATI by AMD was perhaps a response to the Intel-Nvidia partnership, pairing the CPU and GPU (graphics processing unit) underdogs to do battle with the CPU and GPU leaders.
The honeymoon between Intel and Nvidia is over, though. Intel filed a lawsuit against Nvidia claiming that the 2004 agreement does not allow Nvidia to develop or manufacture chipsets--the chips that provide the brains of the motherboard and facilitate communication between the CPU and the rest of the system.
Nvidia countersued claiming that it does, in fact, have the right to develop chipsets as a function of the 2004 licensing agreement. With the collapse of the arrangement between the two, Intel loses access to Nvidia's considerable intellectual property related to graphics processing.
That loss has a direct impact on development of the Larrabee Project. Without Nvidia, Larrabee is dead in the water. At the very least, Intel has to go back to the drawing board and start research and development from the ground up since it can't stand on Nvidia's shoulders.
Chip evolution marches on
The demise of the Larrabee Project is not the end of the world. If the antitrust accusations are accurate, Intel probably doesn't need to dominate the graphics processing industry as well.
With or without Intel, though, the convergence of central and graphic processing, and the evolution of chips in general, marches on at a comfortable pace. AMD's CPU-GPU fusion project, codenamed 'Shrike', is still in the works, and Nvidia is developing a 512-core Fermi chip that it hopes will power supercomputers.
Meanwhile, Intel has a number of innovations and advances it is working on as well. It unveiled a 48-core processor prototype, has eliminated one of the chipset chips in a move toward building the chipset into the CPU, and it is releasing the next-generation Pineview chips that combine graphics and memory controller functions into the CPU, and will replace the popular Atom processors in netbooks.
The Larrabee Project is not dead, its just on life support. Knupffer explained that "it will be used as a software development platform for internal and external use." If Intel resolves its legal battles with Nvidia and the rest of the world, perhaps the Larrabee Project may be resurrected someday.