Normally, this would make a lot of chip writers excited but not many others. But in the light of a looming Federal Trade Commission antitrust investigation and a rebellion among Intel’s chip rivals, the standard battle is getting more interesting.
Intel says that everyone has access to the USB 3.0 standard, which promises to deliver much faster data transfer into and out of a USB socket, which is used on a wide variety of consumer electronics and computer equipment. But Intel has to tell everyone how to make chips that implement the standard. Intel is working on its own design, dubbed a USB 3.0 host controller, on its own. While it is sharing the data about the standard, Intel has not yet done so with the USB 3.0 host controller design.
Intel says that is fair. But rivals allege that Intel is unfairly asking the USB 3.0 committee members to withhold data about the host controller until Intel gets its own chip sets with the technology into the market. They allege, therefore, that Intel is illegally restraining trade to give itself a lead in the market. Intel says that its design for the host controller isn’t done yet and it would be irresponsible to release the design early.
Nvidia in particular was upset that Intel appeared to be using its clout on the USB 3.0 (universal serial bus) standard-setting committee to dominate the standard-setting process as well as the design of the host controller specification. Intel is on the committee, but none of its chip rivals are. Intel spokesman Nick Knupffer tried to defuse the dispute by issuing a blog post.
But, based on interviews with industry sources, it’s clear that Nvidia isn’t mollified by Intel’s explanation of its behavior. It has now gotten together with Advanced Micro Devices, SiS, and Via Technologies to come up with a rival standard. That development was reported by News.com, after the Inquirer’s Charlie Demerjian first published news of the USB 3.0 dispute.
Sources familiar with the rival camp’s efforts say that the rivals can come up with their own design proposal within a month. That so-called 0.5 specification will have to go through reviews, but it represents extra work that the group wouldn’t have to do if Intel shared its own design with them. Other committee members, such as Microsoft, clearly don’t want two different standards because it means a lot more testing and software programming on their part to ensure compatibility of equipment.
Intel contends that it has no interest in withholding data from its competitors. (Intel got into antitrust trouble in the 1990s for withholding information from those who had the legal right to it). For one, it’s against the law in some cases. For another, Intel would risk hurting itself. It might gain a temporary advantage in selling the $10 to $20 chip sets for computers if it holds back the host controller design from rivals. However, it would run the risk of not having enough chip sets to supply the entire market. If that happened, then Intel would have trouble selling its $100 to $1,500 microprocessors. It would, essentially, shoot itself in the foot.
But the chip set division of Intel is in charge of the USB 3.0 work and it may not necessarily be aligned with the goals of the larger company. Intel says it has put a “gazillion” hours of its own engineering work into the host controller design and is under no obligation to release that early.
Nvidia, however, could wind up being a year late with its own chip set if it doesn’t get timely access to the USB 3.0 host controller data. This sort of dispute has arisen before, including when Intel developed a new kind of BIOS, or computer startup software, under the code name Tiano. Microsoft and others stepped in and Intel backed off on pushing its own agenda, authoritative sources said.