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Nvidia trapped in x86 pipe dream

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Nvidia is contemplating its very own x86-compatible processor core. in theory, this core could combine with Nvidia graphics technology to create system-on-chip (SoC) silicon that competes in the rapidly expanding low-power handheld-device market.

According to a report from the The Wall Street Journal, Mike Hara, Nvidia's senior vice president of investor relations, told analysts Wednesday that although the company's Tegra SoCs have ARM-based cores, "some day it's going to make sense to take the same approach in the x86 markets as well."

Rumors of an Nvidia x86 chip have been around since at least 2006, but Hara's comment is the first time to our knowledge that the company itself has mentioned the possibility in public.

Hara is right about one thing: x86-compatible SoCs are the New Hotness, with both AMD and Intel actively developing them. But it's unclear whether Nvidia has or could obtain the necessary x86 license from Intel. We called both companies to find out the status of their licensing position, but did not immediately receive an answer - and our assumption is that the situation is murky, at best.

After all, the two companies are not exactly buddy-buddy these days. They are, in fact, currently in court after negotiations broke down over whether their 2004 cross-licensing pact allows Nvidia to make chipsets compatible with the QuickPath Interconnect in Chipzilla's new Nehalem processors.

What's more, Nvidia's mercurial CEO Jen-Hsun Huang couldn't have made many friends at Intel when he said in reference to the lawsuit, "At the heart of this issue is that the CPU has run its course and the soul of the PC is shifting quickly to the GPU. This is clearly an attempt to stifle innovation to protect a decaying CPU business."

As overstated as Huang's comment may seem, there is a grain of truth in his rhetoric. Last December's firming up of the OpenCL 1.0 standard gave a boost to the long-sought dream of GPGPU computing (general-purpose computation on GPUs), in which GPUs take over from CPUs those tasks that would benefit from a GPU's massively parallel structure.

That said, the CPU market is far from "decaying." If anything, it's evolving - especially in the low-power space - into an SoC market. That is, one in which the CPU is reborn as the core of a single chip that manages computing, graphics, memory, and I/O.

This so-called "embedded graphics" scheme won't kill off discrete graphics, but integrated graphics are headed for a fall.

To compete in the embedded-graphics market, Nvidia would have to integrate its graphics expertise into an SoC. And to have an SoC be competitive in more than the limited handset market now dominated by ARM cores, Nvidia would have to be part of an x86-compatible SoC.

But to do so, perhaps Nvidia wouldn't have to have an x86 licensing agreement with Intel. It could, instead, work with a core-designing company that already has one - Via Technologies, for example.

There's plenty of time, however, for this drama to play itself out. According to Nvidia's Hara, if the company decides to develop an x86 core, meaning if it could settle on a licensing agreement with Intel or if it could form a partnership with a company that already has one, products wouldn't be available for two or three years.

And at the pace that AMD and Intel are moving towards x86 SoCs, that may be too late. ®

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