NVIDIA Accused Of Illegal, Anti-Competitive Tactics With GeForce Partner Program
First, what is the GPP? According to a recent NVIDIA blog post, GPP is "designed to ensure that gamers have full transparency into the GPU platform and software they’re being sold." NVIDIA's partners are free to join or leave the program whenever they choose, and membership entitles these partners (i.e. add-in board manufacturers and system OEMs) to a number of key benefits.
"So the new program means that we’ll be promoting our GPP partner brands across the web, on social media, at events and more. And GPP partners will get early access to our latest innovations, and work closely with our engineering team to bring the newest technologies to gamers," writes NVIDIA's John Temple.
"The program isn’t exclusive. Partners continue to have the ability to sell and promote products from anyone. Partners choose to sign up for the program, and they can stop participating any time. There’s no commitment to make any monetary payments or product discounts for being part of the program", continues Temple.
At first glance, GPP doesn't sound like some industry-disrupting program but rather an enabler, if anything, for consumers. If what NVIDIA says in its blog post is completely accurate, its partners can sign up, enjoy some nice perks including free marketing, and get inside access to early GPU hardware. Sounds like a win-win, right?
"Wrong", says Kyle Bennett of HardOCP. Bennett says that through discussions with numerous NVIDIA partners and OEMs, the GPP is actually a bit sinister, anti-competitive, and uses monopolistic tactics. If a company joins the GPP, its NVIDIA-equipped gaming brand(s) must be 100% aligned with NVIDIA GPUs. And according to documentation provided to Bennett, these partners will allegedly receive priority allocations of GPUs and channel discounts, despite the fact that the NVIDIA GPP blog asserts that product discounts are not provided.
If you want a more detailed breakdown of how this could work, take look at this hypothetical example that Bennett provides:
I have no knowledge if ASUS is a GPP partner, I am simply using the Republic of Gamers (ROG) brand hypothetically. If ASUS is an NVIDIA GPP partner, and it wants to continue to use NVIDIA GPUs in its ROG branded video cards, computers, and laptops, it can no longer sell any other company’s GPUs in ROG products. So if ASUS want to keep building NVIDIA-based ROG video cards, it can no longer sell AMD-based ROG video cards, and be a GPP partner.
The example above uses a board partner, but the same stipulations would also be put in place for any system level OEM, from laptops to desktop brands like HP, Dell, Lenovo, ASUS and many others. That hypothetical seems anti-competitive at face value, especially for a company that already owns roughly 70 percent of the discrete GPU market. What makes things even more prickly is the fact that GPU allocations are incredibly tight at the moment (thanks to those pesky cryptocurrency miners), and NVIDIA's board partners would likely love to have early access to GPUs. However, it seems as though some of the alleged unwritten rules of GPP would encourage companies to go NVIDIA-exclusive in order to get priority treatment for GPU allocations. In effect, they are forced to pick a side, and a competitor like AMD will end up on the losing end.
But the program is "voluntary," so what's the big deal? Well, apparently some NVIDIA partners, who wish to remain anonymous when speaking of the GPP, feel that they have no choice but to join the program to ensure that they have a sufficient stream of GPUs, access to NVIDIA engineers, game bundles, sales rebate programs, and more critically, marketing development funds.
There's a lot at stake here and if this all rings true, the legal ramifications could be huge (as we saw with Intel). "I would highly, actually, almost assuredly suggest that GPP is going to open NVIDIA to lawsuits from AMD and Intel," Bennett alleges. "That alone is going to cause NVIDIA to shoulder financial burden. The OEMs and AIBs will not sue NVIDIA, but they will be deposed for years on this and the concerns about that are already being voiced in a very big way."
So, the big question is why would NVIDIA do this at this point in time when there are in such a dominant position? It's quite possible that NVIDIA, which has been effectively unchallenged in the high-end graphics market for a few years, is feeling additional pressure from its competitors and is looking to draw a line in the sand. AMD, which has long played second fiddle to NVIDIA in the high-end GPU space, has received a significant boost in confidence from Intel thanks to the new Kaby Lake-G processors. The 8 generation Kaby Lake-G processor incorporate Radeon RX Vega M graphics on-package and offer performance comparable to NVIDIA's GeForce GTX 1050 Ti and GeForce GTX 1060 MaxQ. These chips are likely going to be a boon to the thin-and-light notebook and convertible markets when they arrive.
NVIDIA CEO Jen-Hsun Huang downplayed the importance of this mash-up in November 2017, stating, "I think it is a loss for AMD. Their leadership for future generations is now in question. It’s a most amazing and public recognition of the importance of the GPU."
We also have to consider that Intel recently nabbed AMD Radeon Technology Group chief Raja Koduri, who is heading up the company's Core and Visual Computing Group. This group is tasked with developing high-end, discrete graphics solutions (among other things), which means that NVIDIA could have yet another competitor to deal with in the discrete GPU space -- one with considerably deeper pockets than AMD.
We have to remember, however, that these are allegations surrounding GPP at this point, and none of NVIDIA's partners have officially gone on the record just yet, whether out of fear for backlash or other reasons. However, we'll add that we have reached out to a handful of board partners, OEMs, and ODMs, and -- off the record -- some do share Bennett's concerns. We also reached out to NVIDIA for comment and were pointed to the blog post referenced earlier for guidance on what the GeForce Partner Program entails, and also that the company doesn't comment on "rumors." We will of course update this story should NVIDIA decide to offer further commentary.