Times are changing for hardware manufacturer NVIDIA. Born and bred on creating graphics processors for gaming PCs, it now finds itself facing a new world - where traditional gaming platforms are seen by many as being in decline, with mobile on the rapid rise.
While NVIDIA hasn't found its way into Apple's mobile devices, it's aiming to be top dog in terms of chipsets for Android. The firm recently announced a roadmap for its Tegra system on a chip architecture, predicting up to 75 times the performance of its current Tegra 2 by 2014. GamesIndustry.biz spoke to the firm's senior corporate and Tegra PR manager, Bea Longworth about the realities of the rapid refocus on mobile, the likely effect on its PC graphics card business, and whether Android tablets can compete with iPad
Q:How important is Tegra to NVIDIA's overall business now? At what point will it overtake desktop graphics cards?
Bea Longworth:It already is extremely important to us, but in terms of the proportion of the business dedicated to that particular sector, it's definitely going to become one of our most important businesses in the future. We've been pretty open, over the last two or three years, that we have that expectation. And obviously mobile is currently the fastest-growing and the most exciting area of computing and technology, so it makes a lot of sense for us to be there at the forefront. So yes, we're definitely extremely committed to our mobile business and we're really excited to be able to start introducing devices from major manufacturers like LG and Samsung and Motorola based on our technology.
Q: Do you foresee this growth as coming at the expense of your more traditional businesses such as discrete graphics cards?
Bea Longworth: The graphics side of thing is certainly what's historically been NVIDIA's core business, and we're by no means abandoning gamers - that's a stick our competitors have quite enjoyed beating us with. We've demonstrated that we're very committed to the mobile side of things. But that's certainly not the case; our GeForce business is still very important to us.
Our GeForce business is still very important to us. Just from a business point of view, we would be insane to abandon that right now
Just from a business point of view, we would be insane to abandon that right now, because it's the major contributor to our revenue, but also in terms of the company's heart - not just having a general love of that side of things, but being the place that a lot of our innovation comes from. And the fact that graphics processing units for consumers is such a mass market has allowed us to plough amounts of resources into research and development on the GPU side of side of things.
So even though people don't tend to take the gaming side of things that seriously, it is a multi-billion dollar industry, and the fact it does present that economy of scale has allowed us to be extremely innovate and to come up with technologies that are now the foundation of our Tegra business, and also our TESLA business which is the high-performance computing side of things.
Q: How much would you agree with predictions that all the types of technology you cover will ultimately move to system on a chip architectures (a la Tegra, Apple's A5 et al)?
Bea Longworth:It'll be interesting to see how it goes. I think there will always be a place for a discrete GPU, because there will always be people who demand the absolute best of the best, the bleeding edge of performance that you can't get any other way. A discrete graphics card will always be the most powerful solution, and if you want the best that will always be the way to go.
But we've demonstrated that you don't necessarily have to compromise on performance with a system on chip solution, and in terms of being able to enter the mobile market, which is obviously enormous and a lot bigger potentially than the PC market, so it's a huge opportunity for us.
Q: Could the guys who want the bleeding edge all the time theoretically move to a model where they're instead buying a new tablet or phone every six months? NVIDIA, after all, has a Tegra roadmap with near-annual updates planned until at least 2014...
Bea Longworth:They could, but there are things that you're only ever going to get with PC gaming. So obviously we are advocates of PC gaming and we get asked a lot: "Is PC gaming dying, are consoles taking over, are people just gaming on their mobile, surely no-one's going to bother with PCs anymore...?" But it really does come back down to if you're really serious about your gaming, the best experience you can have is on your PC.
Plus there are features we've introduced like 3D Vision, like PhysX, and there are features that game developers want to be able to implement that are really only possible in a desktop-type solution, where you have a large screen and you have additional technologies like 3D Vision which give you a much more immersive experience. We will continue to innovate in the desktop gaming space even while we're ramping up what we're doing on the mobile side.
Q: That Tegra roadmap you have until 2014, with the Stark architecture: You're claiming that will offer around 75 times the performance of the current Tegra 2: is that purely theoretical, or do you actually have that technology in a lab right now?
Bea Longworth:What we announced at Mobile World Congress and CES is pretty much all we have now, and for us it's fairly unusual to announce a roadmap. The first time we did it was at GPU Technology Conference last September, and that was our GPU roadmap rather than our mobile roadmap.
It's something that we wanted to do on the mobile side, really to cement our commitment here. People seem to still have such a strong association with NVIDIA on the graphics and the desktop gaming side of things. They still have this sneaking suspicion that we're just dabbling in mobile, we're just testing the water. With the roadmap we really wanted to make a statement that we have invested majorly in this: this is a huge part of our company.
This is what we're working on right now, and that goes out to 2014, so you can expect a lot more to come from us. Right now, obviously, the further into the future you get the more theoretical, as it were, the numbers become. Those are based on the work that our engineers are doing right now on future generations of the technology.
Q:If the current console generation doesn't change for, as many have predicted, another five years in the case of PS3 and Xbox 360, do you see Tegra-powered or other mobile devices catching up, or even overtaking them?
Bea Longworth: Yeah, I do. And already mobile gaming is hot on the heels of what you would expect from console-class gaming. We were demonstrating an Xbox 360 game running on our quad-core Project Kal-El technology demonstration at MWC. The gap is definitely closing, and that has always been the Achilles' heel of the console - its greatest strength is it's a stable platform, it's very much plug and play, you don't have to fiddle around with the hardware and have all the hassle that you might get from the PC.
But that's also its biggest disadvantage, the fact that they are static from one generation to another, and also that the technology can't improve. Whereas with other platforms like the PC and now mobile gaming, they will be constantly moving ahead. So it will be really, really interesting to see what console technology has to do in order to differentiate itself and stay ahead when it has to compete with a very mass-market mobile format instead of digging in its heels.
Q:The flipside of that, potentially, is that there could be an awful lot of fragmentation in mobiles and tablets if you guys - and presumably your competitors too - are pushing out new architecture every year or so. How much does that risk harming the market for Android games?
Bea Longworth: I don't think it does. You've already seen in the phone space Android is now extremely well-established and has a massive install base. The tablet side is still a work in progress as it were. Google Honeycomb hasn't been publicly released yet, so there's work there for developers in trying to ensure their apps are optimised for that. It will be interesting to see as those kinds of applications start to emerge how that will uptake the impact and the adoption of Android tablet devices.
It will be really interesting to see what console technology has to do in order to differentiate itself and stay ahead when it has to compete with a very mass-market mobile format
In terms of phones, the installed base in there and it's sort of a market that's undergoing a lot of changes right now. It's quite chaotic, but also there's a lot of opportunities for hardware companies like us, the manufacturers and also the developers. There's a choice to be made there by developers whether they want they want to go for the mass-market option, create something which caters to the lowest common denominator, can run on a very wide install base but is fairly basic, or whether they want to create something that it is optimised around high-end mobile hardware so potentially reaches a smaller install base but at the same time they can charge a premium for it.
We launched our Tegra Zone app for Android Marketplace a couple of weeks ago, which included a number of games which have been optimised for Tegra. We don't make any money from Tegra Zone ourselves, it goes through Marketplace, it's really just a way for people with Tegra devices to easily identify Tegra optimised content. But we did find that even though there was a premium on the prices for these games, they have been extremely popular and I think they actually topped the Android Marketplace in the charts in the US.
So that demonstrates that people are willing to pay a bit more for games which have added goodness on a higher-end platform. That has to be an absolutely beacon for developers, if they see that they can create content that people are willing to pay a premium for then that's very exciting for them.
Q: So you don't follow the argument many have made that the necessary future of mobile gaming is incredibly cheap or even free to play?
Bea Longworth: I think that there will always be room for both. There will be always the extremely addictive, basic, Angry Birds-style game where people don't mind having a few adverts on the screen and you play for just five minutes at a time. But there will also increasingly be a segment that it is a more immersive type of mobile gaming, where people are willing to pay a premium to get that better experience and enhanced gameplay.
Q: How confident are you that Android tablets can compete with the iPad, in the same way that Android phones have been able to eclipse iPhone?
Bea Longworth: It will be really interesting to see what happens. Right now Apple seem to have scored a bit of a goal with the iPad 2 - the performance is better than anyone could have expected. It's probably knocked some of the manufactures for six with the achievements that they've made with that device. Apple is always a fantastic innovator in terms of creating categories; they created the tablet category, and made it a credible buyer's category.
Before that people were quite sceptical about tablets: 'what is this thing, why do I need one?' They did the same with the iPhone - before that people were extremely sceptical about smartphones being a major category. When Apple came up with the concept of the App, it suddenly became clear to people why this device was going to be massive, and it has proved to be so and there have proved to be numerous imitators.
Tablets will probably never be quite as big a market as phones - phones are so ubiquitous that it's always going to be the biggest mass market, but I do think that there's absolutely room for the tablet sector to grow a great deal. Also potentially to be more innovative and ahead of the curve. There is that additional freedom with Android for hardware and software manufacturers, whereas Apple tends to be much more of a walled garden. It's definitely going to be interesting to see the battle develop.
Q: Would NVIDIA kill to be in Apple's iPads and iPhones?
Bea Longworth:Well, Apple's also a great partner for us on the desktop, but in terms of the mobile business they do use their own chips. They acquired a company a few years ago which does their SoC solutions and they've made it very clear that for the foreseeable future they intend to keep that side of things in-house. Obviously we would love to work with them, and we'll never close any doors as it were, but right now we're really delighted with the partners that we have.
Going forwards it'll be really exciting to see what Android Honeycomb does on public release - that will start to appear on a lot more devices and it'll be great to see how different manufacturers implement the features that are there and in the Tegra architecture as they bring new things to market.
Q: How important to you is the recent announcement that the next version of Windows will support system on a chip devices?
Bea Longworth: Yes, that is really, really exciting for us. Essentially the announcements that were made at CES... We announced what we call Project Denver, which is that we are licensing ARM technology to create an NVIDIA CPU which we can integrated with our GPU technology. With the Windows announcement, that Windows will be able to run on ARM-type CPU platforms, it just kind of blows everything wide open.
We didn't say a great deal about what we were going to do, but I think it really got everybody's brains spinning on the implications of it. Your solution of choice doesn't have to be x86 anymore, and we're not just talking about mobile devices - it's every type of computing device, from PCs to servers to supercomputers, this sort of ARM-based solution becomes very attractive.
Q: What will be the impact of that on PC games?
Bea Longworth: To be honest, it's not really something that we've gone into a lot of detail yet. I'm sure we will be thinking and talking a lot more about that side of things as Project Denver develops, but right now what we've announced is all fairly high level, so I can't really talk without going into wild speculation.
Bea Longworth is NVIDIA Senior Corporate and Tegra PR manager. Interview by Alec Meer.