Surprise, surprise! Barely three months after Intel reached a settlement with the FTC over PCIe support, the latter has seemingly reversed its stand. While Intel will still be required to support the PCIe interface for at least six more years as per the original ruling, the Commission has surprisingly allowed Intel to ship its latest batch of tablet-centric processors for sale without PCIe support. Unexpected reversal much?

Read on to find out.

Some time back, we ran a short article describing the various terms and conditions set out by the FTC that Intel had to agree to, after it was found guilty of anti-competitive practices. One of the key restrictions imposed upon Intel was that the chip giant was required to support the current PCIe interface for at least six more years. The rationale for such clause was that it ensured Intel could not artificially hinder performance on PCIe-based video cards in favour of its own onboard graphics solutions.

However, it appears that the FTC has agreed to backtrack on its earlier settlement with Intel regarding PCIe support. In its webpage, the FTC has announced that a single exception will be made for “a chip that it had in development before the proposed order was negotiated, but that would violate that order because it does not contain a required interface”. As a result, the Commission had modified its order, thus allowing Intel to sell this specific chip until June 2013, after which the chip must either be revised to support the PCIe interface or dropped completely from sale.

According to the Electronista website, this particular chip, which will be exempted from the trade restrictions set forth by the FTC, is the upcoming Intel Atom processor codenamed Oak Trail. What is interesting about Oak Trail, however, is that it is supposed to be a tablet-centric version of Atom and as such, should not be covered under the FTC’s trade conditions as dedicated graphics solutions on tablets would drain battery life at a much faster rat, thus defeating a tablet’s purpose.

However, it appeared that OEMs had taken the processor and included it for use in more general-purpose devices like netbooks, which benefit from having larger batteries and thus have lesser restrictions on energy consumption. As a result of such actions from OEMs, Oak Trail ended up being covered under the FTC’s order in spite of the fact that it was never intended to be used for powering such devices. And as Intel had already been developing Oak Trail even before the whole antitrust inquiry began, the FTC had decided to grant the chip giant an exception to the order and allow the sale of Oak Trail to OEMs even though it lacks PCIe support.

This does not mean that all is nice and rosy for Intel though. While the company may have been allowed to release the upcoming Oak Trail processor for sale, the FTC has ordered that Intel be given a two-year window to sell Oak Trail processors. As Oak Trail is only due to ship in 2011, Intel has until June 2013 to ship the processor, after which it must either release a new version of the processor that supports PCIe, or drop the product from the market completely. Needless to say, Intel opted for the first option, having announced that it was currently working to add PCIe support to Oak Trail’s successor.

Still, we cannot help but feel that competitors like Nvidia will still be displeased about the fact that they will be completely cut out from any deal involving separate video solutions for Oak Trail-powered netbooks due to the lack of PCIe support.

Source: Electronista, FTC