The GigaOM Interview: Jen-Hsun Huang, Nvidia CEO, on iPhone, Intel & a Dell Phone

Could Dell or HP offer the next iPhone? Nvidia Co-founder and CEO Jen-Hsun Huang certainly isn’t ruling them out. In fact, his firm has launched a low-power computing platform called Tegra that’s specifically aimed at bringing more competitors to the mobile handset market.

But that’s long-term thinking; mobile currently accounts for less than 10 percent of Nvidia’s business. In the meantime, the $4.1 billion-a-year graphics chip maker is battling Intel to bring more focus and computing jobs to the graphics processor that in the past may have been handled by a computer’s main processor, also known as CPU.

Indeed, media-enamored consumers have pushed Nvidia’s sales up by 34 percent from 2007 through 2008 (Nvidia’s fiscal year ends in January). The Tegra platform, based on the company’s sexy new application processor, is one-tenth the size of Intel’s rival attempts to make smaller mobile computers — and runs at less than one-tenth of the power.

GigaOM: On the GPU side, how will you compete against Intel and AMD, who both have platform strategies for the PC market?

Huang: It’s the same way we compete selling graphics cards. Our GeForce chipsets sales are up 50 percent even though the overall PC market is up only 7 percent. So people who care about visual interfaces are buying our chips. We see ourselves as CPU-agnostic. We look at the vertical market we want to go into and we let the market decide which CPU it wants and then we partner with that CPU provider.

GigaOM: Intel is a big partner for you but you recently threatened to “open a can of whoop-ass” on them at an analyst meeting. What is the competition between the two companies like?

Huang: I think the “open a can of whoop-ass” response was really to dispel myths that Intel was out telling everybody. They’ve told people that GPUs are dead and that integrated graphics have taken over the world. I think that’s just really bad sportsmanship, frankly.

Looking toward the future, Tegra is a really fabulous computer and will increase in performance two to three times every year. And if Intel and AMD don’t continue to make the desktop and laptop PCs more and more magical every year, before you know it, mobile computing devices will be disruptive to the PC the same way PCs were disruptive to the mainframe industry.

GigaOM: So tell us about Tegra and mobile computing.

Huang: Five years ago I saw the convergence of a couple of technologies — particularly wireless technology and rich LCD displays that were eventually going to bring to consumers mobile computing devices. It will have elements of entertainment, elements of communications and elements of computing.

You have to deliver these elements with almost no power. If you boil it down to where the CPU, the GPU, and all the individual processors dissipate almost no energy so you could wind it up like a wristwatch or recharge it with the temperatures of your skin, you could make a mobile computing device that fits in your pocket. So we started with a blank sheet of paper and five years later we have Tegra.

GigaOM: What will these devices look like?

The iPhone is the world’s first legitimate mobile Internet device. There are different design decisions that can be made for the iPhone and devices like the iPhone. Some will have Wi-Fi, some touch, and some will have a slide-out keyboard, but that speaks to the orientation where the suppliers want to point their device.

GigaOM: How important will processors be for this type of device?

Huang: Inside the iPhone is a custom chip designed by Apple. Apple has a really great computer chip in there. It has a good graphics core, actually. For the rest of the computer industry who don’t have an internal chip design organization, they’re going to have to rely on someone else to do it. But that is a multi-, multiyear project. So the notion that the rest of the computer industry can quickly catch up with the iPhone really, really depends on someone else designing a chip that’s really low power but also leapfrogs the iPhone. That’s where we come in.

GigaOM: What about competition from Intel, Texas Instruments, Qualcomm, VIA and others also going after this mobile computing market?

Huang: I see the mobile computing space bifurcated in two basic categories where most of the suppliers will end up. There are people really good at communications and that’s where the baseband providers are. TI is really fabulous at communications and Qualcomm is really fabulous at communications.

What Nvidia and Intel are really good at is computing. The difference between us and Intel is we decided to start with a clean sheet of paper. The PC legacy is what causes the laptop to be so big. So we abandoned the PC legacy in favor of low power while retaining all the computing expertise.

GigaOM: So who are the end vendors for Tegra?

Huang: Anyone who wants an alternative like the iPhone.

GigaOm: Handset makers?

Huang: No. Every PC company in the world. I don’t think it’s unrealistic for Dell to offer a mobile computing device.

GigaOM: With a baseband processor?

Huang: Sure. And no, that’s not a product announcement for Dell. Handset and PC companies are becoming similar. So will Motorola be more successful at building a mobile computing device or will Dell be more successful at building a mobile computing device? It’s kind of hard to say.