On Intel’s Decline

The latest installment in a theme I’ve been iterating on for a while now: The Decline of Intel.

This was posted as a comment on a recent post by Jean Louis Gassee on the subject of CPUs and SoCs:

Intel’s strategic position has been eroding since 3DFx came along 15 years ago. From that point on, every PC sold included a bunch of transistors that were paying off the amortization on someone else’s big fab investment. Intel is finally clawing some of that territory back, but I have my doubts that it is going to be enough.

The bottom line is that Intel’s competitive position depends in its ability to invest ahead of competitors in next gen fab technology. It can afford to do so because of its dominant position in desktop and server CPUs and the healthy margins that brings.

The problem for Intel is that each new fab generation is more expensive than the last, and doubles the number of transistors they can produce. Together, this more than doubles the number of transistors they have to sell to maintain their margins. History suggests that this has been a long term challenge. Their average selling price has declined over the last decade in order to balance the supply/demand equation.

They’ve been clever about maximizing their ROI. They use lower margin CPUs to keep the latest generation fabs full, underwriting the cost of fabbing their higher-margin server CPUs. They maximizing the productive life of their older fabs by using them to build support chips (this is why Intel made incursions with x86 chipset makers in the mid-2000s). Unfortunately, this model has its own limits. One of the ways they’ve been managing to schlep transistors is by integrating more and more features directly onto the CPU die, but by doing so, they undermine their own support chip business, cutting in to opportunities to continue to extract revenue from their older fabs.

Which brings us to mobile. Mobile devices can drive a lot of volume, but they don’t drive a lot of revenue. Apple’s new A6 SoC is roughly the same size of one of Intel’s low end i3 CPUs, but intel sells the i3 for 5-10x what Apple, or any other mobile vendor, is likely to pay for a cutting edge ARM SoC.

It appears that Intel may finally have achieved the power/performance ratio needed to play in mobile phones, but it will probably be at least another year before they even have a chance of having design wins that pay-off in significant volume. And even if they do, their growth is limited. Samsung is a major player in phones, and they tend to favor their own SoCs. Apple is the other big player, and they have obviously made their own bet. That leaves Qualcomm’s market share for Intel. I expect that will be a tough fight. Qualcomm will integrate the SoC with the baseband, and they have a lot of patents to bring to that fight. And then there are all these ARM licensees. It is crazy looking at the evolution of ARM SoCs going into cheap Chinese Android tablets.

I just don’t see a big opportunity for Intel. They have a narrow window to gain any sort of real foothold, and the territory they can gain is unlikely to be enough to hold back the tide of ARM licensees which will start eating into their server revenue.

Intel is vertically integrated around the design, fabrication and marketing of CPUs and related components. The advantages of that strategy are in decline. For chips, that seems to be giving way to merchant fabs, which can get the best ROI on their fab investment by leaving the design and marketing of chips to other companies, like Apple, who are vertically integrated around their end-user, and for whom designing their own SoC allows them best serve their customers and drive economies of scale.

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