Via's P4 chip sets risk lawsuit with Intel

In a move that raises the stakes in a looming legal battle between two of the world's largest PC component suppliers, Via Technologies is pressing ahead with plans to launch DDR chip sets designed for Intel's Pentium 4 processor, despite the threat of legal action from Intel.

Via officials demonstrated the company's first Pentium 4 chip set, the P4X266, at the Computex exhibition in Taipei. In contrast with existing Intel Pentium 4 chip sets, which support RDRAM (Rambus Dynamic Random Access Memory), the P4X266 uses much cheaper DDR SDRAM (Double Data Rate Synchronous DRAM). However, Via does not have a license for the 400MHz bus that is used to move data between the Pentium 4 processor and the chip set. Without that license, Intel officials have hinted at the possibility of legal action over the chip set.

Besides the P4X266, which will ship this month, Via has at least two other DDR chip sets for the Pentium 4 on the way. The first on Via's road map, the P4M266, integrates S3 Graphics Inc.'s Savage 4 graphics core with the P4X266 chip set and is expected to ship in November, said Ted Lee, Via's vice president of sales and marketing, speaking at the CeBIT Asia Forum Wednesday.

A follow-on chip set based on a new graphics core, code-named Zoetrope, is scheduled to ship before the middle of next year and will offer substantially better graphics performance, Lee said. The Zoetrope core, which is expected to pass the validation process during this quarter, will offer graphics performance that is up to three times better than the P4M266, he said.

With the licensing issue still unresolved, Via faces the prospect of a legal battle with Intel, which has plans to begin shipping its own chip sets that support SDRAM and DDR memory.

"Anyone that launches a product that purports to be based on our technology (without a license) should be very careful," Intel President and Chief Executive Officer Craig Barrett warned during a recent visit to Taipei.

However, senior Via officials brushed off the possibility of legal action from the very start, pointing to a cross-licensing agreement between Intel and S3, which is affiliated with Via. Via officials believe Intel's cross-licensing agreement with S3 and its affiliation with Via covers the P4X266.

"The legal team has come to me and said we don't have any legal problems," said Wenchi Chen, CEO and president of Via, speaking at the unveiling of the chip set in June. "There is no guarantee Intel won't sue, they always do. But hopefully they will have learned their lessons from the past."

In 1999, Intel filed lawsuits against Via in the U.S., Singapore and the U.K., alleging that Via and some of its customers had broken the law by using the P6 bus in chip sets designed for the Pentium 3 without a license. At the time of the lawsuit, Via had been winning customers at Intel's expense with a Pentium III chip set that supported a 133MHz bus speed. The companies settled the lawsuits last year.

Whether or not Intel decides to pursue legal action this time remains to be seen, however. The company has so far refused to be drawn on what specific steps it might take when the P4X266 begins to ship. Officials at Intel and Via could not be reached to comment on whether the integration of the S3 graphics core with the P4X266 has an effect on Via's legal position.

Via is the only major Taiwanese chip set maker that has not yet been granted a license to make chip sets for the Pentium 4. Rivals Acer Laboratories Inc. and Silicon Integrated Systems Corp. (SIS) have been granted a license to produce Pentium 4 chip sets that support DDR memory and plan to release their own products in the coming weeks. Intel is expected to launch a version of its 845 chip set for the Pentium 4 that supports SDRAM memory this month, with a version that supports DDR due to be launched in early 2002.

SIS plans to ship its SIS645 chip set before the end of August, said company spokeswoman Ellie Yin, adding that SIS plans to launch an integrated version of the SIS645 which will include an SIS-designed graphics core. The integrated version of the SIS645 is expected to be introduced by November, she said.

The SIS645 is currently available in samples and is being shipped to motherboard makers, Yin said.

The CeBIT Asia Forum is being held concurrently with the CeBIT Asia exhibition, which runs through Saturday, August 11.

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