Intel sues Via over P4 chipsets

In a move that has been anticipated for months, Intel has filed a patent infringement lawsuit against Via Technologies in the US....

In a move that has been anticipated for months, Intel has filed a patent infringement lawsuit against Via Technologies in the US.

The suit, filed on 7 September, alleges that the Taiwanese company's P4X266 and P4M266 chipsets violate five patents associated with Intel's Pentium 4 processor. A Via spokesman said he was unaware of the lawsuit.

Via does not hold a licence for the 400MHz bus that is used with the Pentium 4 processor and Intel officials have repeatedly hinted at the possibility of legal action over the P4X266. But Via officials have maintained that Intel does not have a patent that covers the bus.

"We haven't broken any patents," said Richard Brown, director of marketing at Via. "As far as we know we haven't infringed any of Intel's patents."

In recent months Via officials have pointed to a cross-licensing agreement between Intel and S3 Graphics, a company affiliated with Via and named as a co-defendant in the lawsuit. S3 Graphics is a joint venture between Via and Sonicblue.

Via officials claim that the cross-licensing agreement covers the P4X266 as well. Speaking last month, Brown would not comment on whether the P4X266 contains intellectual property from S3. However, Via is planning a November release for the P4M266, which integrates a graphics core from S3.

Via's integration of the graphics core may help the company defend its use of the technology, according to one analyst.

"Intel is angling that the S3 agreement has no validity for the Via chipset whether they have integrated graphics or not," said Kevin Krewell, a senior analyst with MicroDesign Resources. "It may be a valid case that there is S3 technology in the chip [set], so it could be covered by the [S3 and Intel] agreement."

At the heart of the legal battle between Via and Intel is a contest over memory and pricing. Existing Pentium 4 chipsets made by Intel support Rambus Dynamic Random Access Memory (RDRAM), but the P4X266 uses much cheaper Double Data Rate Synchronous DRAM (DDR SDRAM). Intel has plans to release its own chipset supporting DDR - the 845 - later this year, with 845-based motherboards expected to appear in volume during January 2002.

Intel has issued a Pentium 4 chipset licence to a handful of companies, including Via rivals Acer and Silicon Integrated Systems.

One analyst said Intel had no choice but to sue Via in order to maintain a level playing field for those who have licensed its technology. Nathan Brookwood, a principal analyst with US-based Insight 64, said: "If Intel allowed Via to do this [sell Pentium 4 chip sets without a licence], that would give Via an unfair advantage."

The timing between Intel's upcoming launch of its own 845 chipset and the lawsuit is most likely a coincidence, Brookwood continued. "They had to wait until Via created a transaction where they sold these. As long as Via wasn't selling them, there was no violation of Intel's [intellectual property]," he said.

When Paul Otellini, the executive vice-president and general manager of the Intel Architecture Group, was asked about Via's chipset at the Intel Developer Forum in August, he allegedly replied that "it takes two to tango".

"It didn't appear that Via was willing to negotiate with Intel," Brookwood said. "I think they wanted to get Via to the negotiating table."

This is not the first time that Intel and Via have locked legal horns over chipset licensing. In 1999, Intel filed lawsuits against Via in the US, Singapore and the UK, alleging that Via and some of its customers illegally used the P6 bus used with the Pentium III in chipsets. The companies settled the lawsuits in 2000.

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