After the press slammed Intel in June for its hard-line stance on the USB 3.0 standards battle, the world’s biggest chip maker has apparently changed its position. Faced with an unpleasant spotlight, Intel chose to compromise. In doing so, it has probably headed off an antitrust fight.
Rivals in the chip set business said that Intel didn’t play fair when it took control of the standard, dubbed Universal Serial Bus 3.0 (or SuperSpeed USB), for transferring data in and out of PCs at high speeds. Intel said it shared details about the standard with everyone. But rivals accused it of withholding details of its design for implementing USB 3.0 in the form of a host controller for a chip set. By withholding details, Intel could selfishly give its own chip set designers a head start, but such a move was risky. It could either slow adoption or fracture the standard.
The technology is important to consumers because it will allow data transfer between computers and gadgets at a rate of 4.8 gigabits a second. That’s blazing fast compared to data transfer in the megabits a second today. For iPod users, that means you could move a high-definition movie from a computer to an iPod at much higher speeds.
Now Intel has released its host controller specification, dubbed the Extensible Host Controller Interface draft 0.9. Now the company’s rivals can also get started on making their own chip sets that are compatible with the USB 3.0 specification. In a press release, Intel said that “interoperability among devices from multiple manufacturers is important for consumer adoption of ‘SuperSpeed USB’ products.” The specification is available royalty free to any companies that sign a “contributors” legal release with Intel.
“Given the industry trend toward one specification, we resolved it was best to sign,” said one source.
Chip set makers — Nvidia, Advanced Micro Devices, Via Technologies and SiS — threatened to rebel and pull out of the standard, setting the stage for a fight with Intel that resembled the revolt of PC clone makers against IBM in the 1980s. In a blog post where it defended its actions, Intel said that the design wasn’t done and it couldn’t yet share it. Intel had previously said it would share the design in the second half of 2008.
Intel compromised because it came under pressure from the chip set makers as well as Microsoft. The Redmond giant has a lot of clout itself and it didn’t want to write two types of software to support an Intel standard and the rivals’ standard. Microsoft offered its blessing on the latest deal, as did AMD, NEC, and Dell.
Nick Knupfler, a spokesman for Intel, said, “The industry is well on its way to high-speed USB nirvana.” Translation: all the chip set makers are expected to sign. Update: Knupfler also said that Intel has always planned on delivering the specification as soon as the silicon design was robust enough to be shared without fear that it will have to be redone in some way.
Clearly, Intel didn’t need this kind of bad publicity over alleged anti-competitive failure looming over it as the Federal Trade Commission kicked off a formal antitrust investigation against Intel. What is interesting is that Intel came around. The company had said that its work wasn’t done on the host controller and that it was under no obligation to share work that it had put “gazillions” of hours into.
But Intel changed its tune, invited the chip set rivals to come to talks, and said it would share that data to head off a fracturing of the standard. As we all learned in kindergarten, sharing is nice.
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