What's next for Bigfoot? New CEO Michael Howse speaks out

We haven't heard much from Bigfoot Networks since we reviewed the firm's Killer NIC in the summer of 2007. Back then, our verdict was that this high-end gaming network card did indeed improve ping times as advertised. Yet it wasn't a flawless product, and it was expensive—$170 for the K1 model and around $250 for the fancier Killer M1 version.

Bigfoot still offers the same two cards at roughly the same prices, so what's it up to now? Is it fading into obscurity, or has it found a market for these products? We've spoken to newly minted Bigfoot CEO Michael Howse to shed some light on the company's progress and to learn what it has in store for the future.

According to Howse, Bigfoot has been focusing its efforts on winning over major gaming PC vendors like Dell (with its Alienware arm), Falcon Northwest, CyberPower, and Commodore. Killer NICs purportedly make their way into 10-40% of gaming rigs from those firms, which—as Howse himself points out—isn't half bad for a start-up's first product. Howse say he is "very pleased" with Bigfoot's financial performance, and he told us sales actually went up between the third and fourth quarters last year. As we learned yesterday, graphics processor vendors weren't so lucky.

Although you can purchase Killer NICs from e-tailers today, Howse said Bigfoot doesn't have much of a presence in the add-in card market right now because of insufficient distribution. One of the firm's goals is to reach more enthusiasts who build their own systems, since that demographic supposedly accounts for roughly half of the PC gamer market. At the same time, Bigfoot wants to keep pushing on the pre-built front and score even more deals with PC vendors.

Reaching out to a greater audience will naturally involve price cuts, since not many gamers are willing to shell out over $150 for a network card. When we inquired about pricing, Howse recalled his days at 3dfx, where a large portion of sales came from the $129 Voodoo 3 2000. Increased volume (and resulting economies of scale) eventually pushed that card to $99. The CEO revealed that a second-gen Killer NIC will come next quarter, and while he wouldn't explicitly announce pricing, he suggested that Bigfoot is aiming for a similar ballpark. Both increased volume and a switch from field-programmable gate arrays to custom-made chips will allow Bigfoot to cut costs.

In addition, Bigfoot could eventually take on the likes of Realtek in the motherboard market. We asked Howse whether Killer NIC hardware might make a good addition to some upscale X58 motherboards, and he immediately responded, "I think it would be an awesome addition." He added, "We've certainly had discussions with some of those folks [motherboard makers], and as our prices are coming in line with the expectations of the pricing of the motherboards, I think we can get there." Howse went on to lament the dearth of innovation in client-side networking hardware, and he noted that Bigfoot's potential in that area drove him to join the company.

We were also curious about how actual users were responding to the Killer NIC and whether Bigfoot had ironed out some of the problems we ran into ourselves. Howse sounded a little less enthusiastic as he explained that, while the cards got positive reviews, they came out "a little early"—and some consumers had problems with drivers that "weren't as solid as they could be." Bigfoot has "reacted really well to customer complaints and requirements," he went on to say, a process that's been aided by Dell and Alienware's "extremely rigorous" qualification process.

Speaking of software, the Killer NIC's built-in Linux distribution allows it to run custom applications (dubbed FNApps) on the card itself. Another one of Bigfoot's goals this year is to continue improving existing FNApps and offering new ones: Howse mentioned a bandwidth control application and a "whole host" of new apps coming out.

In conclusion, Bigfoot perceives the network interface market much like the early 3D acceleration market, and it's bent on capturing a broader audience—not just the hard-core gaming niche. Ageia had similar aspirations for its discrete PhysX physics processors, but there are key differences: Bigfoot's product works with existing games and fills in for existing, albeit more pedestrian, network hardware. If Bigfoot can bring prices low enough and integrate its chips on motherboards, gamers might one day come to favor Killer NICs over existing hardware from Realtek and Marvell.

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