Just over a month ago, we sat down with Nvidia’s product manager, Dave Ragones, to discuss the company’s freshly announced Ion platform, which pairs Intel’s netbook-friendly 1.6-GHz Atom processor with Nvidia’s GeForce 9400M GPU. In that conversation, we discussed Ion’s cost, availability, and the viability of placing a powerful GPU (the same one that powers the revamped Apple MacBook) into netbooks. Yesterday, we continued the Nvidia Ion conversation, but this time with the company’s outspoken cofounder, president, and CEO, Jen-Hsun Huang. Although he was unable to reveal when the Ion platform will hit the market, Huang shared his views on a number of topics:
LAPTOP: What’s your take on netbooks right now? Jen-Hsun Huang: We’re all trying to figure out what a netbook is. From my perspective, anything that has an X86 processor and has Windows running on it is really a PC. If I were to ask a million people, What do you call something with a Microsoft operating system called Windows and X86 processor from Intel, I would think that 99.9999 percent of them, except for the Intel marketing person, would call it a PC. I think that so far, what a netbook is, is a low-cost PC that doesn’t work that well. We all know that there’s a price point around $299 to $399 where people would love to buy a new PC. So what’s wrong with today’s netbooks? The Atom platform is creating an installed base that doesn’t run modern applications. It doesn’t run anything well from Electronic Arts, it doesn’t run anything well from Adobe, it doesn’t run anything well from Microsoft. I just mentioned the top software companies in the world. So in a way, the Atom platform is creating an installed base of PCs that’s going to eventually hurt the PC software industry. I think we all have to be very thoughtful about the proliferation of PCs that are inferior to what people think a PC should be, yet still is a PC. So how can you make netbooks better? This is the classic innovators dilemma as new price points emerge. Technology quickly changes, and like Moore’s Law, it becomes twice as good every year. Atom was announced about a year ago. In a few more months, people will realize that it will be possible to build the Ion platform around Atom that makes it a really fabulous, premium PC experience. I think that this is the beginning of a new trend, and customers can get the full PC experience without spending much more than $399. How much would Ion add to the cost of a netbook then? It’s hard to guesstimate, but our GPUs have a price range from $30 to $40. It replaces two other chips, the Northbridge and Southbridge, and will certainly be less than that. Can you give us a sense of timing for when we’ll see the first Ion-powered netbooks and desktops? We haven’t announced anything on behalf of our customers. Just as you’ve observed that the buzz around Ion is really high, almost every single OEM in the world is exploring it. The experience is so dramatic compared to an Atom platform without it. And the incremental investment is so low that every OEM is doing a design around it. It’s a disruptive platform in lots of different ways. We’re excited about it, the market is super excited, and the buzz is really high. Do you think Intel is super excited? You can make the argument that the CULV [Consumer Ultra Low Voltage] platform is a response to Atom. Do you feel like Intel is threatened? I don’t really know if they are or not. They haven’t told me. Our focus is to build the most amazing products that the world has seen, and hopefully surprise the industry with what we can achieve. We’ve always believed that the GPU is becoming more important. With Ion, we’ve brought Cuda, Open CL, and DirectX 11 all the way down to the most cost-effective platforms in the world. This is a really good platform for consumers. Customers and consumers are well served by having this platform. It’s been reported that Intel is discouraging the uptake of Ion by forcing customers to buy the Atom processor and Intel’s chipset as a bundle and by not validating your chipset. Have you heard anything similar? I’ve heard all kinds of stories about what Intel is doing. I’ve brushed it off so far as rumors, as I couldn’t understand why Intel would limit great PCs from reaching the market. Great PCs help Intel. Great PCs help humanity. Great PCs are great for the entire industry and entire market. What the industry needs are products that really excite consumers, so that even in these difficult times they’ll come back to buy PCs. I would hope that Intel isn’t doing anything to prevent consumers from getting the most innovative products, in this case, built around Atom, their own processor. I think consumers would be really disappointed if they learned that Intel is sabotaging their ability to get access to breakthrough technologies. How would you respond if you found out these claims were true? It’s kind of weird to tell your customers that you can’t buy my stuff this way. It’s the OEM’s responsibility and prerogative to design systems around technology components. We’re a technology component company, and Intel’s a technology component company. It’s weird for me to tell somebody the type of computers they can design. I thought they were supposed to take all of these tech components and build amazing products from them by mixing and matching and differentiating. I would be disappointed to learn that Intel is doing something to keep innovation from progressing, and keep end users from getting the best products out there. Do you feel Ion would help netbook vendors scale Atom up to designs with 12-inch or larger displays? Absolutely. The resolution of a computer depends on the capability of the GPU. It’s completely independent of the ability of the CPU. The amount of data that comes from the Web, whether you have an iPhone or 16:9 high-res display, the GPUs will render and display the image so quickly that the resolution of the display won’t matter. Ion will allow you to support resolutions as high as you want to go, from tiny displays to large ones. How do you think Atom stacks up to AMD’s new Neo processor and companion graphics chips? Atom by itself with Intel integrated graphics would get crushed by the Neo platform. That’s because AMD is one of the world’s most advanced graphics companies. They bought ATI, who has wonderful technology. When you couple that with an AMD processor, it would destroy the Atom platform. How about when you pair Atom with Ion? That’s totally different. Atom plus Ion will give Neo a good run for its money, and from my perspective, it’s a superior platform. The Atom processor is really terrific—it’s small and low powered. Atom plus Ion is just a fabulous machine: It’s small, low powered, and full featured in every way. What about VIA’s Nano platform? Do you think it has any legs? Nano is a fabulous processor. You could argue that it’s architecturally one generation beyond Atom. The challenge in the complexity of the PC is the software outside of the processor. The amount of software and hardware outside of the CPU is so much, unless you have tier-one capabilities, you can’t build a tier-one–capable machine. That’s really VIA’s weakness. They don’t have the resources to build the GPU in the system to be competitive. We’re huge fans of the Nano, and the way that we support it is with discrete graphics. In the near future we’ll support it with our Ion platform as well. Not this particular Ion platform, but our next-generation Ion platform. At that point we’ll support Atoms, Celerons, Core 2 duos, Nanos. We want to support as many processors as we can. Can you give us an update on the Tegra platform? What kinds of devices should we expect? We have designs that we’re working on with smart phone companies around the world, and it typically takes a year or year and a half to get to market. We’re really busy getting those projects done. We see that notebook computers are becoming cheaper, just like they’re supposed to; electronics are supposed to get cheaper. We expect devices like smart phones, mobile game systems, the iPod touch, and small keyboard devices with Internet access, to have 3D capability and HD capability. It’s just built around a different type of platform. Devices will come in so many different flavors: phone, handheld console, keyboard flavors, no keyboard flavors. One of the most exciting MIDs was the Palm Pre. John Rubenstein knocked one out of the park. It’s got a keyboard on it, a rich display. It’s awesome. Could you create Tegra-powered notebooks? You can create a full keyboard device with about a 10-inch display. With a 10-inch display and a full keyboard you also have the opportunity to include a full notebook battery. You could have a two- or three-day computing experience without another charge. Now you’re talking about a device that exceeds the users’ expectations, and delight them in a way that would cause them to buy the product and keep it. I expect to see $199 full notebook–form factor MIDs, based on Windows Mobile and Windows CE; based on processors like Tegra with full HD capability, but consume less than a watt. It’s like a little motorcycle with a tanker behind it. How far can you go? Well, around the earth. Telcos could be giving them away for Internet access as part of your cable service. I fully expect to see a whole new class of MIDs with full keyboards. Do you think Tegra devices could threaten traditional netbooks at that price? The netbook is not as good as a PC; it’s not as good as the MID. If I want a mobile Internet device, most netbooks today consume too much power and the battery life is too short. I already have an iPhone, so it’s got to do more than the iPhone. I already have a BlackBerry, so it’s got to do more than a Blackberry. It’s got to be at least as good with Internet ability and battery life. If you gave me something affordable at $199, with a full keyboard, has the ability to surf the Web for two days, it’s thin, it’s sexy, I enjoy carrying it around—my gosh, I can imagine using it.