2002 - ATI Radeon 9700 Pro: With DirectX 9 to the Stars
Found in 1985, ATI Technologies has always been innovative, yet relatively conservative company. After numerous industry's "firsts" as well as numerous market failures, the year 2002 was a major change for both ATI as well as consumer graphics cards market.
For many years ATI sold its graphics boards either to OEMs or under its own brand. In addition, the company was so committed to demands of computer makers that its first generations of 3D graphics accelerators could not match those from companies like 3dfx, but could match customers' price-points. On the other hand, following usual business logic, ATI diversified its product lines: it introduced the world's first mobile graphics chip with 3D acceleration, it made the first graphics adapter with integrated TV tuner as well as video-in and video-out connectors, it developed one of the first graphics accelerators for mobile phones. The company has consistently acquired smaller market players and startups to boost its resources with new engineers and technologies. For example, in early 2000 the company bought little-know ArtX company, which previously worked on graphics processors for Nintendo 64 and Nintendo GameCube, for whopping $400 million in stock options and appointed the head of the company - David Orton - onto the position of president and chief operating officer. The acquisition later proved to be the best investment the company has ever done.
But in spite of its innovative DNA, there was one thing that ATI used to fail: introduce new graphics accelerators for gamers on time. Starting from the introduction of GeForce in late August, 1999, Nvidia was consistently the first to launch new chips with new DirectX functionality and new levels of performance. Thanks to successful products like GeForce, GeForce 2 it managed to crash rivals S3 and 3dfx. With the GeForce 3 arriving in early 2001, it became the enemy No. 1 for ATI.
While the DirectX 8-supporting GeForce 3 was an important product, ATI understood well back in 2000 that its more advanced Radeon 8500 (R200) will be late-to-market. Instead of speeding-up its introduction or boosting its performance, it concentrated on development of the code-named R300, Dave Orton transformed the company from an add-in card vendor to graphics chips designer with many partners building graphics cards powered by its GPUs.
Some say that ArtX developed the R300 almost completely by the time it was acquired by ATI Technologies; some claim that thanks to new blood it received as a result of the take over the Markham, Ontario-based company formed second GPU development team, which eventually created the legendary Radeon 9700. In any case, the ATI R300 was not just a blow to Nvidia, it was a massive and outrageous offense onto the market of high-performance graphics cards for enthusiasts, the market mostly created by 3dfx and Nvidia.
Starting from day one, the ATI Radeon 9700 Pro and its derivatives quickly became the fastest graphics cards on the market, outperforming the competing GeForce 4-series chips dramatically. Nvidia hinted (by releasing OpenGL extensions of its NV30) that its forthcoming DirectX 9 GPU supports more features, but months past and there were no products from the former leader. When the GeForce FX 5800 Ultra finally emerged in March '03, it was slower than the Radeon 9700 Pro, especially in cases of heavy usage of shaders, something that created Nvidia back at the time.
A year after the launch of the R300, its successor - the Radeon 9800 XT - was the graphics card of choice by gaming enthusiasts as well as computer makers and starting from June, 2004, David Orton is the chief executive officer of ATI Technologies.
The success of the R300 is a result of many events and decisions that do not have direct relation to each other. Firstly, ATI bought ArtX, a little known company; secondly, the company changed its business model from selling graphics cards to selling graphics processors; thirdly, the company made decision to concentrate on designing the R300 instead of speeding-up the R200; in fourth, the made a number of design decisions that enabled very high performance of the R300 chip. There are probably tens of factors that clearly influenced the success of the Radeon 9700 and ATI. There are hundreds of other factors that led to the merger between ATI and AMD in 2006 and demise of the ATI brand-name in 2010. But for those who lived back then, in 2002, there was only one affirmative result of R300's success: the market of gaming graphics no longer belonged to Nvidia alone.