If it Ain’t Broke...

The status quo is a dangerous thing. In 2005 ATI and NVIDIA were both sitting on a formula that worked: build the fastest GPU in the world (and provide solid drivers), and you’d win the market. By this point ATI had years of support to continue building GPUs this way, but there were a few within the company who believed it was time for a change.

In many ways ATI and NVIDIA were just taking different risks. NVIDIA had learned its lesson with transitioning to new manufacturing processes too quickly and would most likely build GT200 on an older, more mature process, burdening it with a huge die. ATI opted to do what NVIDIA wouldn’t and move to new manufacturing processes quicker, aiding it in producing GPUs with smaller dies.

With its only competitor hell bent on making bigger and bigger GPUs, ATI took care of half of the problem - it would be free to do whatever it’d like, without any real competition. The question then became - could it work?

It’s easy to, today, look back and say “of course” but you have to understand that this was 2005 and the first specifications of RV770 were being drafted. Imagine sitting at a table full of people whose jobs were supported by building the biggest GPUs in the world and suggesting that perhaps we sit this round out. Let NVIDIA take the crown, let them have the halo part, we’ll compete in the $200 - $300 market. Yeah, right.

What followed were heated debates, if ATI were to stake the future of its graphics business on not building the absolute faster GPU, but rather a GPU targeted at a lower market segment the proposition was risky.

ATI viewed the graphics market as five segments: Enthusiast, Performance, Balance, Mainstream and Value. In the Spring of 2005, ATI decided to shoot for the Performance segment, and not Enthusiast. You could even argue that the Performance segment is what the R300 competed in back in 2002, priced at $399 it was closer to the $299 MSRP of the Radeon HD 4870 than the $599 MSRP of the GeForce GTX 280 when it launched. But ATI viewed this as a change in strategy, while R300 aimed for performance regardless of die size, RV770 would have clear power and die size limits imposed on it.

There were many individuals at ATI that were responsible for the RV770 we know today getting green lighted. ATI’s Rick Bergman was willing to put himself and his career on the line, because if this didn’t work, he’d be one to blame. Carrell recalled a story where Rick Bergman and others were at a table discussing RV770; Rick turned to Matt Skynner and asked him if he thought they could really do it, if they could make RV770 a smaller-than-NVIDIA GPU and still be successful, if it was possible to create a halo in the Performance segment. Matt apparently pondered the question, turned to Rick and said “I think we can”. Carrell felt that ATI might not have gone down that path if it weren’t for Matt Skynner’s support and Rick Bergman making sure that the project was executed as well as it ended up being.

It was far from rosy at that point however, there were many very smart engineers, people who were responsible for things like R300 and R580 who disagreed with the strategy. People who had been right before were saying that if ATI didn’t build a true competitor to GT200 that the fight would be over. Then you had folks like Carrell saying that it could be done, that this was absolutely the right move. It’s much like the passion of politics, each side believed that they were right, but ultimately you can only pick one - and both sides have to live under the same roof.

The Bet, Would NVIDIA Take It? The Power Paradigm
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  • DerekWilson - Thursday, December 04, 2008 - link

    I'm glad you guys were able to stick to the plan an launch at the amazing prices you hit. It really shook up the industry and helped bring higher performance to lower price points. Now we just need the same thing to happen with integrated graphics.

    But seriously ... about those future architectures ... maybe you guys want to sit down and have another nice long chat? ;-)
    Reply
  • tygrus - Thursday, December 04, 2008 - link

    Choice A : Spend another 1B on a larger chip R&D, fab problems, low yields, high unit cost, potential delays, large dual-slot with space&cooling problems. Loose mid-range revenue potential, more R&D/time etc. to make half-size chip for mid-range.

    Choice B : Make the design to be price/power/performance efficient for very profitable mass-market. If you users want almost double the performance, buy 2 identical cards which saves on not producing a low volume BIG chip/card. (Though now we have 2 chips for X2 which still simplifies and reasonable efficient compared to a card design cramming a single BIG chip starved of bandwidth).
    Reply
  • CloudFire - Thursday, December 04, 2008 - link

    hands down one of the best, if not the best article i've ever read at anand. GREAT JOB! it shows how believing and getting back up when you're being beat down can get you where you want to be!

    for those people who took up the challenge to be different and change, imo are the true innovators who changes the world in the face of extreme adversity.
    Reply
  • Emperor88 - Thursday, December 04, 2008 - link

    Great artilce. There are precious few of these.

    Thanks a lot :)
    Reply
  • cowofdoom - Thursday, December 04, 2008 - link

    Long time reader, first time poster. Great article. I really think it says it all. Any time you get a chance to write articles like this I would love to see them. Great job. Reply
  • Emperor88 - Thursday, December 04, 2008 - link

    haha first time (wait second now) poster here as well. Best article I've read here. Reply
  • Barack Obama - Thursday, December 04, 2008 - link

    Keep it comin'! Reply
  • Boundless - Wednesday, December 03, 2008 - link

    Very nice article once again...helps reinforce my decision of keeping this place readily bookmarked since I first visited back in 2001. Reply
  • Regs - Wednesday, December 03, 2008 - link

    I want to know what AMD was thinking for those quite 3 years when they blew Prescott out of the water. Did they see Conroe coming? I think it's time for Anand to get on some black paint and go commando over there at AMD HQ. Reply
  • Cloudie - Wednesday, December 03, 2008 - link

    One of the best articles I've ever read. Kudos to Anand, and thanks to AMD (: Reply

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