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ATI @ ECTS 2002 - part 2
This is the second instalment of our interview with ATI's Andrew Thompson. If you missed the first part of the interview then that can be read here. The interview was conducted during ECTS 2002, held in London. In this interview we concentrate on the latest line of graphics cards from ATI, Rendermonkey and economics.

Who are you trying to target with the Radeon 9700 and 9000 cards?
The Radeon 9000 (RV250) follows the same principles as the Mobility Radeon 9000, in that we are trying to bring last year's high end down to the mainstream as soon as possible. One of the main reasons for this is that we want to make technology more accessible to people. When we develop new cards we go to the developers and ask them to use features in our cards, in return they want people out there to be able to capitalize on these new features. If people are only able to capitalize on these features with high end boards then game developers will be unwilling to develop products for such a small market segment.

So the sooner we bring cards into the mainstream the greater number of cards we are able to ship coupled with more developers and gamers making greater use of the features available in our cards. The Radeon 9000 really brings DirectX 8.1 for the masses with such a cost effective product.

On the high-end we have the Radeon 9700 PRO which breaks new ground. We've been working with Microsoft for a while, providing inputs to them. DirectX 9 is just around the corner and we have full support for that, including vertex/pixel shader 2.0 and new shader models. From the hardware point of view the biggest thing is the floating point capabilities. Before you would go into a Hollywood studio and they would say that you have your toys for the gamers, however when you get floating point it allows cinematic rendering, now they can't say that our cards are toys.

So with the Radeon 9700 PRO you have the raw power and more instructions but the transition point is the floating point that really enables us to get these effects.
When can we see these boards in the stores?
Immediately. We've already shipped to our distributors. They are already available in the US, and the next few days in the UK. {At the time of publishing they are available}.
How much interest has OEMs shown regarding the Radeon 9700 & Radeon 9000?
It's been huge. In the high-end, OEMs are interested in providing the highest performance and all the newest features. There is currently nothing out there that compares with the Radeon 9700.

The Radeon 9000 is the first chip that has DirectX 8 support in something that is so cost effective, which produces a lot of interest.
Does the price tag of the Radeon 9700 limit the number of OEMs willing to use it in their products?
Since the Radeon 9700 is targeting a niche market, a market where people buy bigger monitors, hard drives, better sound cards, it's really for people that have an appreciation for what they are getting with the Radeon 9700. The OEMs and the consumers expect paying a premium for such a good product which delivers.
Recently you launched the Catalyst range of drivers, how hard are you trying to get rid of the poor reputation you have with drivers?
The best thing we can do is to show people we have a better product. Some of the criticisms in the past were deserved but some was blown out of proportion. We can't really worry about the past too much, the best thing we can do is produce and provide the best product for today. We are doing that, and a number of reviewers have recognized that.

So we'll try and get the message out, but not beat people over the head with it. We'll give you a good driver and a good experience and hopefully people will say that they haven't had any problems.
How often can we see new drivers being launched for your latest products?
Every couple of months we'll release new versions on our website. We'll have Microsoft certified drivers 4 times a year. This is because it takes longer to get drivers certified. All drivers are fully tested by us.
How long is your product cycle?
In the high-end it tends to be 12 months for a brand new technology and you get these "mid life kickers" at a six month interval. For mainstream and mobile products it's about a year. Whilst it might seem confusing from the outside due to price cuts, causing there to be a number of products on the market at one time we always try and debut a new technology every 12 months.

What starts at the high-end enthusiasts market quickly goes down to the mainstream desktop, mobile and integrated markets, so it's important you continue developing high-end products.
Could you explain to us what Rendermonkey is?
Rendermonkey is an integrated tool suite that helps developers take advantage of the new technology. The problem is we are working on hardware at a fast pace, but it takes time for good applications and content to be developed that takes advantage of this hardware. Also the expectations of consumers get higher and higher with each generation so one of the things we realised is that we were putting things out so quickly to the development community, they weren't able to keep up.

The thing they really need is tools that speed up their adoption of new technology. What Rendermonkey gives you is an interface that looks much like Microsoft's Visual Studio development environment. One of the challenges is although there is a small piece of shader code, there is a lot of other code that you need to draw the pretty stuff on the screen and there's no standardized format for this. Whilst some of the development community have their own methods, the great stuff coming from other developers struggle to be able to fund those type of development efforts.

Rendermonkey is a suite of tools which we give away to developers. We'll continue to update it and listen to feedback from developers and help them to speed up development time.
What sort of research was carried out before designing Rendermonkey?
We did a lot of talking with our ISV team internally and ask them questions about what they need to implement new features we have in our boards. They came back to us saying they don't have the time to invest in digging into these new features, or there is a lack of testing and optimization time. This was echoed by many developers and then we started to outline this tool suite.

We displayed what we had done to some developers at GDC and ask for their feedback, and there was a lot of positive support. Our tool is on the website allowing anyone, including consumers to download it, play with it and we'll continue to update it.
How did NVIDIA's launch of Cg effect the release date of Rendermonkey?
Not at all. It's interesting to see people thinking that Rendermonkey might be a reaction to Cg. If you look at the depth and complexity of what Rendermonkey is there's no way we could have just put it out. We spent about 8 months developing it and there's no way we could have whipped that out in a couple of weeks. It's such a competitive market, so there is nothing we or NVIDIA are doing that the other guy isn't.

We {ATI & NVIDIA} realise the same problem, but are addressing it differently. Our approach is to embrace the standard APIs, DirectX and OpenGL allowing their use with increased effectiveness. NVIDIA's approach with Cg is to provide them with a new interface which is different to DirectX and OpenGL.
How long have you been developing Rendermonkey?
It's been around 8-9 months now.
Why should developers use Rendermonkey over other solutions?
We tell people to use what works for them. We're trying to find areas where there aren't any tools out at the moment. Rendermonkey is just a XML database and you can envisage the whole thing being a series of plugins. We do plugins that we think are useful, but then developers do plugins that they find useful. So if they want to use their own game engine to view their own pictures instead of ours, they are free to do that. They would just write their own plugin as a viewer and pull in special models. Right now we pull in 3D Studio Max models, but if they wanted to pull in Maya models then they can.

It's extremely flexible and open; supports all the shader models in DirectX 8, 1.1 through to 1.4, it supports DirectX 9. We are going to give out the source code so there's nothing proprietary to ATI and developers can choose things that are easier to them.
How has the global recession affected ATI?
Consumers are buying fewer PCs, which has an effect on us. It's been relatively flat for a while now so that presents a challenge and in the recent past our moves to make money has been to gain back market share as opposed to market growth. We don't know anymore than the next guy about when the market is going to rebound so the best thing we can do is make products that help us regain market share and when the market rebounds, things will really start to take shape.
Can we expect to see company restructuring (job losses) in the near future?
Definitely not. Things are going very well for us and we've launched a number of good products recently. There's been a high uptake of the Mobility Radeon 9000, and I believe we are very happy with things. We'll continue to make R&D investments that allows us to crank out such good products.
With ATI's NASDAQ stock price falling throughout this year, what are you doing to change this?
The best thing we can do is keep getting the message out to people. There's a lot of strange reasons why these things happen, but it's occurring with the whole high-tech semiconductor sector and people want to see what these two quarters bring. Recently NVIDIA announced they were going to have a big write-down and we're at the same part of the industry, so people are waiting to see if we are going to have the same issue.

If we continue to put out good products, customers will buy them and gradually the market will take note of that and the stock price will take care if itself. Other than education there's not much else we can do.
We would like to thank Andrew for taking time out to answer these questions.