With all the hullabaloo surrounding Valve's recent announcements, it's easy to forget that AMD had their GPU 14 Tech Day in Hawaii today. The no-frills event, heavy with technical specifications, even had trouble holding onto its livestream audience which slipped away as the jargon continued to pile. Obviously, a fair amount of data was released during the occasion but most of it was only parsable by and relevant to a certain subset of the tech-savvy demographic.
Mantle is the low-level, high-performance graphics API that AMD announced today. According to Hardware Zone, it's part of an 'AMD initiative, which Stockholm-based DICE is assisting with, to create a new graphics programming model that fully exploits the capabilities of modern GPUs, allows game developers to speak the native language of the AMD Graphics Core Next (GCN) architecture, providing a deeper level of hardware optimization no other graphics card manufacturer can match'. In simpler terms, it opens a more direct channel between programmer and hardware, making the development process more akin to traditional console programming.
What's even better, however, is that with Mantle, developers can enjoy that same efficiency across any AMD-powered machine, be it console or PC. To put it in another way, this means that Mantle can help increase overall performance and plain ol' make games faster.
Now, here's where it gets interesting.
Although Valve has yet to release any specifications in regards to their upcoming Steam Machine, many speculate that an NVIDIA card sits at the graphical heart of the device. Given NVIDIA's incredibly supportive note in regards to the SteamOS and this mention of how NVIDIA engineers collaborated with Valve to improve driver performance for OpenGL, optimize performance on NVIDIA GPUs, and port Valve's content library to SteamOS, it wouldn't be very surprising.
Like true gentlemen or shrewd business people, AMD is going to make Mantle 'open' . In theory, NVIDIA will be able to re-purpose this shiny, performance-enhancing API for their own uses. Unfortunately, cross-competition adoption has generally never been one of those things that occur in the real world. Though NVIDIA's products might be able to support Mantle, AMD would still hold the keys to the proverbial kingdom, leaving NVIDIA as the errant tourist, a position the company isn't likely to entertain, not when they have other options up their analogical sleeves. So, now the question becomes: what's going to happen next? If Mantle becomes the new standard, pretty much everyone is going to want to use to make use of it but will NVIDIA allow them?
More crucially, even if NVIDIA decides to be the better mega-corporation and submit to AMD possibly more superior API, will developers subject themselves to what may be poorer performance rates, anyway? Mantle is probably going to function better on native hardware, regardless. As a result, could this inadvertently lead to the Steam Machine losing some of its viability and nascent momentum? Why focus on one fledgling console, regardless of whether it's backed by a megalith like Valve, when you have the rest of them at your disposal? If forced to make a choice, will developers want to make games for the Steam Machine when they can make better, faster, stronger games for everywhere else instead?
Currently, the ball is in NVIDIA's court. How the other graphics giant chooses to respond is going to be instrumental in what's going to happen next. Will NVIDIA introduce their own state-of-the-art API? Will we see a return to the fragmented standards of the 90's? (Please no.) Or will NVIDIA simply shrug and pretend it never happened. And if they do, will this give Mantle, assuming that it functions as advertised, the ability to propagate through the industry? We'll see in the coming weeks.