Intel may sue over new Pentium 4 bus

Intel says chipset makers using the faster system bus are breaking the law unless they have a specific licence from Intel. Via Technologies could be in for more trouble

Via Technologies and other chipset makers could be in for a new round of legal flak from Intel, as the chipmaker seeks to protect its newly introduced fast system bus.

Intel on Monday introduced the 850E chipset and three new Pentium 4 processors, all equipped to transfer data to and from memory at 533MHz, up from 400MHz with older chips. But third-party chipset makers such as Via, Silicon Integrated Systems (SIS), Nvidia and ATI require a special licence to make Pentium 4-compatible products using the faster bus speed, even if they are already licensed to make 400MHz-bus chipsets. The chipset enables the processor to communicate with other parts of a PC system, like memory and input/output devices.

"The 533MHz bus requires a licence from Intel," said an Intel representative. "It is not covered by the 400MHz bus licence." Intel would not comment on who has the 533MHz bus licence, but SIS and ATI have said they hold the licence.

SIS sells a chipset called SIS645 which uses the 533MHz system bus. Via, on the other hand, introduced a Pentium 4 chipset with a 533MHz system bus in March, the P4X333, but does not hold a special licence. In fact, all its Pentium 4 chipsets -- including the earlier P4X266 and P4X266A -- are currently the subject of several ongoing Intel lawsuits, about which Via and Intel have said little since last autumn. Intel's introduction of its 533MHz-bus part could mean more legal trouble on the horizon.

Via said its position on the legality of the P4X333 is the same as the P4X266; namely that the new chipsets do not require new licences. Via claims that it is allowed to make Pentium 4 chipsets under the terms of an agreement between S3 (now a Via subsidiary) and Intel.

Intel and Via, the No. 2 chipset maker, alternately compete for chipset market share and boost the market for one another's products. At the moment, however, Intel's lawsuits have limited Via's ability to sell its Pentium 4 chipsets to motherboard makers, according to industry analysts, and Via's sales for January through April were down 30.9 percent on the previous year.

Acer and Nvidia do not appear to be covered by a 533MHz bus licence, but have not yet introduced parts using the technology.

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