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They say the only two certainties in life are death and taxes. For Intel (Nasdaq: INTC ) , I think we can add antitrust complaints to the list. Already dealing with an unfavorable EU judgment and an investigation by the New York Attorney General's Office, the world's biggest chip company now faces the wrath of the Federal Trade Commission.
In what must feel like a scene out of Groundhog Day for Intel investors, the FTC just announced that it has filed suit against Intel, alleging that it is using its monopoly power to stifle the competition.
One of the charges here definitely feels like old hat: the accusation that Intel uses its dominant position in the PC microprocessor market to discourage manufacturers from buying chips from competitors, the largest clearly being Advanced Micro Devices (NYSE: AMD ) . PC vendors such as Gateway and Toshiba have gone on record in the past about Intel's use of strong-arm tactics to limit, if not eliminate, their usage of AMD processors. Thus it's not too surprising that the FTC, working under an administration that's been more aggressive than its predecessor in pursuing antitrust complaints, has decided to go after Intel on this front.
Given the evidence that's turned up thus far, it wouldn't surprise me if Intel settles these claims with a costly payment and a vague promise not to engage in such bad, bad behavior again. But the skeptic in me isn't convinced that this will do much to change the competitive landscape. Partly because Intel has deep pockets, and partly because there are a variety of strong-arm tactics it can use while maintaining a semblance of deniability. But also because plenty of big-name PC manufacturers, such as Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ ) and Acer, have made a point of committing to AMD in spite of Intel's behavior.
Other than Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) , which I think prefers to support just one CPU vendor at a time, the only major manufacturers that seem to be giving AMD a relatively cold shoulder are Dell (Nasdaq: DELL ) and Lenovo, whose sales tilt toward business users -- a risk-averse user base that generally prefers Intel.
But while the FTC's suit might not have a huge direct impact on Intel's standing with PC manufacturers, it could have an indirect impact. The FTC's suit also includes a complaint that Intel manipulated its compiler software, which is used to translate software code so that it can be understood by a processor, to give Intel processors a performance edge over competing chips. If that claim holds up, and Intel is forced to modify its compiler code, that might have the effect of improving the performance of AMD processors; thereby improving their competitive standing.
Also of interest is that the FTC is upset over Intel's treatment of NVIDIA (Nasdaq: NVDA ) in the motherboard chipset and larger graphics processor market. With Intel and NVIDIA trading lawsuits, the latter company has halted development of chipsets for Intel's next-generation Nehalem processors.
Unlike the microprocessor space, it's pretty easy for the FTC to create a more competitive playing field here. All it has to do is require Intel to grant NVIDIA and other interested parties a license to develop Nehalem chipsets. If this happens, it should give a boost to NVIDIA, whose past chipsets for Intel processors have sold well in the notebook and high-end desktop markets. Although, even if there's a resolution in chipsets, it's still murky what further concessions the FTC may want to create a "level" graphics playing field.
This time around, it looks like the wrath of regulators may actually have some kind of impact on Intel's competitive standing. It may not be the kind of earth-shaking impact that AMD and NVIDIA investors might be hoping for, but it is the kind that could have a real impact on their companies' bottom lines within a couple of years.