The upcoming merger between processor manufacturer Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) and graphics maker ATI will affect the semiconductor industry for years to come--and it may be the most significant consolidation PC gaming has yet seen.
The unified AMD-ATI business will be a major player in several vital PC, server, and consumer-electronics component categories, but the merger raises immediate questions about how the business units will integrate, how current product lines will be affected, and what combining all that CPU and GPU technological expertise will mean for future business strategies.
Integrating the companies will have the expected administrative challenges involved in getting 10,000 AMD employees and 3,000 ATI employees working together. That said, AMD and ATI complement each other fairly well from a business perspective in the sense that there's not a lot of market overlap. AMD does processors for PCs and servers; ATI does graphics, chipsets, and media processors for consumer electronics.
AMD has traditionally relied on third-party semiconductor manufacturers such as VIA and Nvidia to produce motherboard chipsets to accompany its processors. While other manufacturers took care of the support chips, AMD could focus on processor development and production. The merger with ATI will give AMD an instantly viable chipset business that will let AMD adopt a more elegant product offering similar to Intel's, whereby AMD can supply an entire system platform--including the CPU, motherboard chipset, and graphics--to a PC manufacturer that wants to get everything from the same source.
On the consumer-electronics side, ATI gives AMD a foothold in the console space, digital television, and handsets. ATI has GPUs in the Microsoft Xbox 360 and Nintendo's upcoming Wii console. ATI also manufactures digital processors for the high-end television market and media processors for cell-phone handsets.
GameSpot caught up with Pat Moorhead, AMD's vice president of advanced marketing, after a recent tech demo at the company's Sunnyvale, California, headquarters to ask him what the ATI acquisition means for AMD and its customers.
GameSpot: Why ATI and not Nvidia?
Pat Moorhead: ATI was the right choice for a lot of reasons. The first thing is on the notebook side. As you know, they have 70 percent discrete market share in that area. Secondly, these guys know chipsets. ATI is a player in consumer electronics. They are the market-share leader in the front end of high-def TVs, they're in the Xbox, they're in Nintendo, and they're also in handsets, and that's an area that's complementary to AMD. It was the smart choice.
GS: Where does this deal leave your current partners now that AMD has ATI for chipsets and GPUs?
PM: It's more of an "and" situation rather than an "or." We're going to continue to work with Nvidia on the GPU side as it relates to open-standard systems through things like PCI Express, and also on the chipsets side as it relates to the AMD CPU. I know there has been a lot of interest in this Nvidia versus ATI thing, but I think what people should realize when it comes to chipsets is that Intel is the highest-volume producer. So it's really AMD and ATI and Nvidia looking at Intel's chipset market.
GS: How will ATI's merger with AMD affect ATI's ability to make chipsets for Intel platforms?
PM: I can't get into legal specifics on this, but I can say that our competitor charges exorbitant rates to participate in their ecosystem. AMD, on the other hand, essentially welcomes people into our ecosystem. We do not charge licensing fees to do chipsets for us, and that's a huge differentiator. By doing that, the water will rise and all boats will rise with it.
GS: How will AMD handle the ATI integration?
PM: We're setting up ATI as its own business unit led by Dave Orton, the CEO of ATI. There's a lot of beauty in that, in the fact that they can run very closely as an autonomous unit, particularly when it comes to GPUs.
You can just imagine in a development project--and I've been through a lot myself--where you have cross-functional teams who get together on projects where you need very close collaboration. I talked earlier [during the ATI merger Q&A session] about how AMD and ATI were friends, and now we're family. You can imagine how important that can become when it comes to chipsets and integration with the CPU.
Now a key point here as to our openness is, with openness, you have to always watch where the information flows. We're going to set up an information firewall between the GPU side of the business, the discrete business, and the rest of the company. The reason for that is to make sure that all of our partners, like an Nvidia, would feel comfortable with the sharing of information and that's standard for this high-tech industry that we're in--people setting up firewalls in different parts of the business.
GS: What happens to the ATI branding? It makes sense to keep the ATI name for graphics, but will we see chipsets branded as AMD?
PM: The deal doesn't finalize until the fourth quarter. There's an integration team that's set up, led by the senior executives, and one of the three guys in there is Dave Orton. They'll make the decisions. Now the ATI brand in graphics is great and has a huge following. That's something we need to interpret. ATI stands for graphics and AMD stands for great processors--we're going to take all of that into play.
GS: What kind of technology will AMD be able to develop now that you have ATI?
PM: The ATI acquisition gives the combined company the ability to touch a lot of new markets even better. I'd like to get back to the four computing platforms that I talked about earlier today. The first one being a GPU-centric platform, the second a media-centric platform where what matters is video. Then you have a data-centric model where the CPU is the most important factor, and then finally you have a balanced approach very similar to a PC where you have more of a balanced approach to GPU and video, CPU and chipsets.
What we're really excited about here on the new market front is what we can do together as it relates to consumer electronics, which up to this point AMD has not been a part of, but ATI has. I talked about digital TVs. I talked about handsets. I talked about gaming consoles. Imagine combining that in the future with an awesome CPU and that really opens up the opportunities. But again, the beauty of the combination is the mixing and matching of the different technologies--GPU, video, CPU, and chipsets--whatever the future throws us, we'll be prepared. Today's digital TVs don't require 64-bit processors with four gigs of memory. Not yet, right? [laughs]
The question is--and this has been a debate for years--where will consumer electronics go? Will it be a PC-centric world? Will it be a device-centric world? We believe it's going to be a combination of both. Both are very relevant and understood models. You're going to be accessing that same content through a handset like my Razr does today. You know, I'd like more power on my Razr. I want more CPU power. I want more CPU power and better graphics on my Blackberry. I want better media handling on my PC. Regardless of where the market goes, we're going to be prepared and make a lot of our customers and a lot of end customers happy.
GS: Does putting the GPU on a CPU combination make sense as a high-end option, or is that strictly an emerging-markets-type product?
PM: We have an initiative called 50x15, which is our goal, along with our partners', to get 50 percent of the world's population on the Internet by the year 2015. As part of that, we're looking at very different and distinguished technology and also business models like Flex Go [Microsoft's micropayment plan that lets users pay as they go for computer usage]. Right now we're looking at an optimized platform for that. One of the answers--part of the solution--very well could be an integrated CPU and GPU.
If you look at the differences in architectures between graphics and CPUs, the different manufacturing processes, the different type of technologies--it doesn't make sense right now for today's general-purpose PCs and particularly doesn't make sense for the high-end enthusiast and gaming market, where just the raw horsepower required to satisfy the needs of the end users wouldn't make sense for a combined chip.
GS: What will the graphics-centric platform look like in 2008? What chips will the platform have, and where will they be?
PM: It's a little hard to tell with that level of granularity. We haven't even closed the deal yet. But you'll be one of the first guys that we'll tell.
Just to reiterate, the graphics-centric platform looks more like the console boxes of today where you have a monster GPU with the appropriate CPU, the appropriate video, and the appropriate support of chipsets. Now the interesting part though is, with Microsoft raising the bar in PC gaming, what will that mean in the Vista time frame and beyond? People have different preferences. I am not a console guy; I am a first-person shooter [guy] on my monster PC. That's another GPU-centric platform where you can see two, four, six, eight, even 16 cores up in the future.
GS: AMD's Torrenza technology allows people to fill empty CPU sockets in multiprocessor systems with specialized coprocessors that get access to the system's HyperTransport bus. Could you develop a GPU that will work with Torrenza?
PM: Technically, it's possible. Anything that needs a high-speed serial interface is appropriate for Torrenza. Part of the strength of Torrenza makes it difficult to explain because whether it's physics, whether it's graphics, whether it's data, you can accelerate all those through Torrenza. The first application that has come out has been in high-performance computing where a lot of it has to do with physics. There are no technical barriers to having graphics be part of the HyperTransport bus.
GS: But does it make sense to have a Torrenza GPU? Graphics cards are designed to support the GPU with onboard graphics memory.
PM: It's too hard to say right now. You can do a lot of things with a chip. In this Blackberry or even on a Razr, you have CPUs [and] GPUs stacked up on top of each other, including memory. There's a lot of technology out there that allows you to do that. Spansion, our memory division which is now an independent company, they actually sold stacked chips along with memory. The technology is available. You can make a lot of choices. You can put it on one piece of silicon. You can stack the silicon, but you have to put on a certain bus structure. You can put it on a PCB like the current graphics cards do today. You better bet we're going to be looking at the trade-offs between feature set, performance, and price.
The fun part about it is--and I've heard people talk about "Gosh, this is like two candy stores coming together now between AMD and ATI"--we're going to be looking at all of the options, and the cool part most of all is historically. Due to a lot of the monopolistic behavior of our competitor, we feel like a lot of that innovation may have been squashed in the past, and now it's going to be like opening up a fire hydrant with innovation just pouring out there. I just can't wait when the deal is finally consummated to get all of the engineers in a room as the same company moving in the same direction. I think you're going to see magic happen.
GS: IBM surprised a lot of us by sweeping the CPU design wins for the upcoming console generation. Can you offer an insight into why the console manufacturers didn't adopt x86 processors?
PM: I don't have any inside scoop on why they didn't choose an x86, but I will say that we're going to do our darndest to get--not only the GPU functionality, which is in Xbox today--we're going to work our hardest to get the CPU in there as well. I know of no other company who's better positioned in the future to take advantage of that than the combination of AMD and ATI.