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FTC modifies antitrust settlement to allow Oak Trail launch

Nov 3, 2010 — by LinuxDevices Staff — from the LinuxDevices Archive — views

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has modified an agreement it reached with Intel settling antitrust complaints against the chipmaker. As a result, the company's forthcoming “Oak Trail” Atom will be allowed to ship without a PCI Express interface until July 2013.

Intel's legal dispute with the Federal Trade Commission appears to be wrapping up, after the agency announced yesterday that it had modified an initial agreement reached with the giant chip maker in August to settle antitrust allegations.

According to the FTC, the agreement was amended to allow Intel to ship its upcoming "Oak Trail" Atom platform without the required PCI Express interface because Intel began manufacturing it before the two sides reached the settlement Aug. 4. The FTC's modification will allow Intel to ship the Oak Trail chip until July 2013, but all future generations of the chip after that date must come with the PCI Express interface.

The modified agreement orders Intel to include a standard PCI Express bus interface in "each of its mainstream microprocessor platforms subject to this provision." Exempting Oak Trail CPUs shipped on or before June 30, 2013, it adds a proviso that such processors must have been "promoted and sold only for use in fanless netbooks launched on or before December 31, 2012."

Dated Oct. 29, the FTC agreement adds that PCI Express will be required only in "computer products," and — rather amazingly, we think — specifically exempts all tablets. Smart phones and any other devices with screen sizes less than seven inches are also classed as "non PCs" and are exempt from regulation, the agency further adds.

Prior accusations

In December 2009, the FTC filed suit against Intel, alleging that the chip maker abused its market dominance to illegally quash competition from the likes of Advanced Micro Devices, Via Technologies, and Nvidia by offering system makers special discounts and rebates in return for limiting their use of products from those other companies, or by threatening retribution.

The FTC also said Intel altered some of its technologies, such as compilers, so that they would hinder the performance of AMD products, and then laid the blame for the poor performance on AMD's technology.

The accusations echoed similar claims made against Intel, not only by rivals like AMD and Nvidia, but also by other regulators, including the European Commission and the N.Y. Attorney General's Office. Intel executives have steadfastly denied that their business practice — while aggressive — violated antitrust laws.

Intel last year settled its long-running legal dispute with AMD, and currently is appealing a $1.45 billion fine levied by the EC. The chip maker reached a settlement with the FTC in August that outlined what Intel could and could not do in regard to its competitive business practices.

One of those provisions was the inclusion of the PCIe interface in the Intel chips for at least six years to ensure that they could not limit the performance of graphics chips, and to let Nvidia, AMD and others more fairly compete against Intel.

The FTC's modification excludes the Oak Trail Atom platform from that requirement. Oak Trail, designed for such form factors as tablet PCs and thin notebooks, will start appearing in systems in 2011. (See later in this story for background.)

The FTC also said that it rejected the arguments from some parties, including Via and chip designer ARM, that the agreement reached with Intel was not punitive enough on the giant chip maker. Via sought some changes in the original agreement, and ARM — coming into closer competition with Intel as the chipmaker looks to muscle into the mobile handset market — asked the FTC to extend the order against Intel beyond the x86 market. The FTC rejected the suggestions from both vendors.

The FTC's suit against Intel refueled debate over the federal government's more aggressive stance in antitrust cases, particularly in the high-tech industry. Regulators not only are looking at Intel, but also other major tech players, including IBM. Some see the government's actions as necessary to level the playing field and to stop actions that they say ultimately are harming consumers. However, others see the regulators at creating an anti-business atmosphere in the United States.


Intel announced "Oak Trail" at the beginning of June, touting it as an Atom platform "optimized for tablets and sleeker netbook form factors due to its reduction in power consumption and thermals." The platform includes a "Lincroft" SoC, a "Langwell" I/O controller, plus some additions (below) code-named "Whitney Point."

Intel's Oak Trail platform is a superset of Moorestown
(Click to enlarge)

Lincroft — formally known as the Atom Z6xx (below left) — and Langwell are also part of Intel's long-awaited Moorestown platform, which made its debut in May. Moorestown was announced with support for three flavors of Linux (Android, Moblin 2.1, and MeeGo) but nary a mention of Windows — perplexing, at the time.

Intel's Z6xx SoC (left) and Platform Controller Hub MP20 (right)
(Click to enlarge)

As it turned out, the Langwell (Platform Controller Hub MP20) chip (above right) gives Moorestown high-speed USB and USB On-The-Go capabilities, cryptographic acceleration (AES, DERS, 3DES, RSA, ECC, SHA-1/2, DRM), and a 24-bit audio DSP, according to Intel. But the forthcoming Whitney Point superset is what will allow Oak Trail to run Windows 7, since it adds SATA, HD Audio, HDMI, and a variety of legacy I/O (below).

Intel's Oak Trail
(Click to enlarge)

The added functionality described above will presumably increase the Oak Trail chipset's size and power consumption compared to Moorestown (otherwise, why omit it in the first place?). Without providing specific information on packaging details or TDPs, Intel has promised that Oak Trail will be 40 percent smaller, 35 percent thinner, and have lower power consumption than its first-generation Z5xx Atom.

When it announced the Moorestown platform, Intel said the Z6xx would offer not only 1/50th the idle power consumption of the Z5xx, but also 1/20th the power consumption for audio playback. Power usage during web browsing and video playback has been cut by one half to two thirds, the company adds.

As a result, it was said, "high-end smartphones, tablets, and other mobile handheld products" will be able to offer more than ten days of standby, up to two days of audio playback, and from four to five hours of intensive usage.

Given that Moorestown is a subset of Oak Trail, it, too, lacks a PCI Express bus. The FTC agreement does not mention Moorestown, but, as mentioned earlier in this story, exempts tablets, smartphones, and other small devices that are that chipset's likely home.

Further information

The FTC agreement referred to in this story may be downloaded from the agency's website in PDF format, here.

Jeffrey Burt is a writer for our sister publication eWEEK. Jonathan Angel contributed additional reporting and technical background to this story.

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