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AMD: To Merge Or Not To Merge?

Strategic Nvidia-AMD Partnership (SNAP)

As you may or may not know, the relationship between AMD and Nvidia has been a long one, starting with the first Xbox, which unleashed nForce to the world. It is not a secret that AMD had Xbox all lined up, with Microsoft buying a special version of the CPU that was somewhere between Duron and Athlon. If we recall it correctly, AMD's XCPU was a Duron design with 128 L1+128 kB L2 cache, instead of Duron's 128 kB L1 + 64 kB L2 cache combo. Intel pimped AMD at the last minute with a Pentium III design (actually, this design was more Celeron), and all of the AMD presentations in which AMD was praising its Nvidia and Microsoft relationships, were flushed down the toilet.

Given the fact that SNAP was ousted out of the Xbox, AMD and Nvidia continued to collaborate closely on bringing the Xbox design to the PC: nForce 420 was launched in June and shipped in September of 2001, ahead of Xbox console. It was nothing but an original nForceX design for Microsoft, with original support for EV6 FSB (that AMD used) instead of Intel's GTL. A year later, this was followed by the legendary nForce2 chipset, which was sold in the tens of millions (quite a high number for an enthusiast chipset) and Intel was constantly shunned for an Intel-based nForce.

Nvidia was disappointed with the nForce3 design, since it was completed a year ahead of Athlon 64, and that gave the company time to create nForce 4 SLI for Intel, only to be screwed by Intel's Pentium D 820 design, which was incompatible with the boards (a desperate bid to avoid utilizing overclocking capabilities of the chipset). This is the reason why Nvidia is extremely careful in its dealings with Intel, and the recent nForce 680i-Intel 45nm Penryn fallout only reminded us of the fragile relationship between the two.

SNAP continued to take place even after the AMD-ATI buyout, with a war that engaged AMD people against ATI people. This led to ATI's roadmaps being leaked to Nvidia and various departures from key engineers harmed the product cycles. We believe that this could also turn out to be the most critical mistake Hector Ruiz made as CEO of AMD. He did not voice out clearly what would happen with ATI and why the acquisition was necessary. When we heard stories that involved various people from AMD's Human Resource department - this author vividly remembers questions like "Why can't we fire more ATI people?" in internal e-mail communications.

AMD started attacking Nvidia in summer of 2007, making bundle deals that included AMD's processors and ATI graphics and chipsets for the "back to school" period. Thus, a whole year was lost. We all know that Nvidia gained tremendous market momentum.

  • teleclarke
    Here's a curveball. Why doesn't Comcast move into the chip world? Comcast just threw a bunch of money at Clearwire for WiMax deployment, which is to provide one more avenue of pushing content. What if they controlled content, distribution and the end user's equipment via low-cost HTPCs, much like they control the cable box (for the most part, considering the failures of CableCard). This would be a scary situation for MS, Sony and particularly Nintendo (and likely the consumer :p). Bundle Gaming (via HTPC), VoIP over WiMax and cable/fiber, DTV and HS Internet. Vertical integration is the name of the game, not horizontal aquisition, i.e. IBM.
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  • Interesting article. One thing you didn't mention about an acquisition by NVidia are the significant regulatory hurdles to overcome, i.e., antitrust. Such a merger would create a pretty big monopoly in the add-in graphics market.
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