The DOJ has started to investigate a number of companies, including Google, for its treatment of book publishers.
"This is going to have a dynamic effect on Silicon Valley," Balto said. "Intel is going to be front and center for agencies."
A twist in legal theory
Another factor that could weigh against the chip maker is new scholarship that seeks to overturn dominant legal theory that critics say has limited the scope of U.S. antitrust law, known as the Sherman Act.
Most prominent among these, according to Gary Reback, the legendary Silicon Valley antitrust lawyer who jousted and won against Microsoft in the 1990s, is a forthcoming article by Harvard Law School professor Einer Elhauge, titled "Tying, Bundled Discounts, and the Death of the Single Monopoly Profit Theory."
Elhauge, who was considered a leading candidate for Varney's antitrust job at the DOJ, argues that companies with "market power" that offer bundled discounts so that buying two or more products together is cheaper than buying them separately "can produce anticompetitive effects."
This test, he writes, is more accurate than more conventional ones, such as comparing a product's price against the cost of making it, which is often used to judge "predatory pricing."
Elhauge's article, which analyzes economic theory and precedent legal cases, does not mention Intel. "I actually don't know anything about the Atom-ION situation," he wrote in an e-mail.
But offering anticompetitive bundled discounts is exactly what Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang has accused Intel of doing with its Atom CPU and graphic chips. According to Huang, Intel sells its Atom CPU alone for $45 but sells an integrated chip set, which includes an Intel graphics chip, for just $25.
Huang's complaints have been echoed by some publications, such as DigitTimes.com, that are close to PC makers in Taiwan, which buy the majority of the Atom chips.
Nvidia's Ion platform, which pairs Intel's Atom CPU with Nvidia's 9400M graphics chip, has been slow to catch on with PC makers, even though Nvidia's chip is widely considered more powerful (they are used in Apple's aluminum MacBook Pros).
Customers -- both PC makers and netbook buyers -- may enjoy lower prices in the short run, Balto said, but when used by a dominant company such as Intel, bundled discounts will unfairly drive out smaller competitors, with the result that "in the long term, customers will end up paying more."
Nvidia, which is involved in several lawsuits against Intel, though none specifically involving Ion, declined to comment for this article.
But Reback said in an e-mail that Elhauge's article "would make [Nvidia's] arguments a lot easier."
Intel spokesman Chuck Mulloy vigorously disagreed.
"[Elhauge's] article has zero applicability to Intel whatsoever, and there's no basis for anyone to reach that conclusion," he said. "The article certainly has merit, but it is not as simple as it is being portrayed. It's an academic discussion."