It’s concerning that Intel doesn’t have a better answer to the question of what’s next

Image: Reuters/Robert Galbraith
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Intel once turned down the opportunity to become the sole supplier of iPhone processors. Why hasn’t it let go of its defocused search for the Next Big Thing and, instead, used all means necessary to regain the account?

Intel is a prosperous company. For the quarter ended in September, Intel scored $14.6 billion in sales, 65% gross margin and $4.5 billion in operating income, a nice progression from the same period a year ago:

A 65% gross margin is enviable for any company, and exceptional for a hardware maker: Intel’s margin is up in software territory. By comparison, Apple’s gross margin–considered too comfortable by followers of the Church of Market Share–stands at 38.6% for the 2014 fiscal year ending in September.

But when we take a closer look at the numbers, the picture isn’t as rosy.  Nearly 90% of Intel’s revenue—$12.9 billion of the total $14.6 billion—comes from two groups: PCs and data centers (servers, networking, storage.) Intel’s presence in the mobile world? Nonexistent:

Essentially no revenue for Mobile and Communications, and a $1 billion loss. Looking at the past four quarters, Intel has lost about $4 billion in the pursuit of the mobile market (Daniel Eran Dilger says $7 billion in the past two years.)

How did Intel handle the problem? By sweeping it under the rug. In November, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich announced that the company was merging Mobile into the PC group and would discontinue its $51 per Android tablet subsidy in 2015. This came just weeks after Krzanich had proclaimed Mission Accomplished in the tablet field:

“‘We’ve made good progress getting into tablets’ Krzanich told reporters ahead of the annual Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco. ‘We’ve gone from nothing to something where I consider us a real tablet manufacturer.’”

The company’s inability to break into the mobile field—into any field other than PCs and servers—isn’t new, and it has worried Intel for decades. Company execs and strategists aren’t happy being the hardware half of Wintel, with being yoked to Microsoft’s fortunes. They like the money, but they want a “second source” for their profits, something other than the x-86 market, so they’ve embarked on a neverending quest for the next stage in the Intel rocket.

(Of course, the company isn’t blind to the benefits of the Wintel alliance: Given two processors of equal merit, the one running Windows fetches the higher price, hence the ferocious tactics that have landed the company in court on several occasions.)

In its search for the Next Big Thing, Intel has tried alternatives to the x-86 architecture and come up with failures such as the iAPX 32 and the Itanium high-end server processor. The latter, a puzzling adoption of HP’s PA-RISC architecture, was quickly dubbed Itanic by tech wags as results failed to match lofty launch projections.

Intel has tried server farms, modems, networking equipment and, I kid you not, toy microscopes, but it somehow never got around to mobile. In the pre-iPhone days of the mobile world, the dominant players—Nokia, Motorola, Palm, Blackberry—all used processors based on the ARM architecture, processors that were too small and inexpensive to interest Intel. No money there, they cost 1/10th or less of a PC processor.

Steve Jobs offered Intel a chance to get into the mobile game: He asked the company to bid on an ARM-derivative for the iPhone. As Paul Otellini, Intel’s CEO at the time, wistfully and gallantly recounted, he gave the opportunity a pass, thinking the numbers (price and quantity) were too low. (An ex-Intel acquaintance told me that the business people felt they should go after Nokia, instead, because of its huge volume at the time.)

In 2006, after missing the iPhone, Intel sold its ARM processor business to Marvell.

When iPhones and Android-based smartphones took off, Intel insisted it wasn’t concerned, that it would triumph in the end: We will win because our unapproachable manufacturing technology will produce x-86 processors that are superior in every way to ARM-based competitors.

We’ve heard this line every year since. The latest version is summarized in this slide from a November Investor Meeting:

What Intel contends here is that it always has a three-year lead over its competition—it’s just a given. What company execs fail to explain is why smartphone manufacturers have failed to see the light, and why Android tablet makers had effectively to be bribed.

Now it seems that Intel has discovered the Internet of Things…and wearables, of course. If you have the patience, flip through this 66-slide presentation that tells us that IoT will be huge because the objects around us will all become intelligent (a story we’ve already heard from companies such as Cisco—which is also looking for its Next Big Thing.)

Naturally, wearables are in there.

This is painful. The whole presentation is an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink assemblage of unoriginal ideas. There’s no focus in Intel’s theory of everything, no way to see when, where, and how the company will actually rise above the IoT noise.

As for wearables—now fashionable in more ways than one—Intel touts its new MICA bracelet:

You can “pre-order” yours at Opening Ceremony and have it delivered in time for Christmas.

Let’s not forget Intel’s partnership with Google for the next-gen Google Glass, nor the company’s acquisition of Basis, a maker of fitness wearables.

Certainly, the more “initiatives” Intel throws at the wall the higher the chances that one of them will stick. But from the outside, it feels like Intel is being driven by courtiers and PowerPoint makers, that senior management really doesn’t know what to do—and what not to do. (Krzanich says he green-lighted the MICA project because his wife approved of it “after using it for several days.”)

Of all the things Intel should and shouldn’t have done, the Apple element figures mightily. Since Intel offered a whopping $51 Android tablet subsidy, a charity that landed its mobile activities $7 billion in the red over two years, why didn’t the company offer Apple a $10 or $20 subsidy per processor as a way get the manufacturing relationship restarted? “We’ll beat Samsung’s prices, we’ll be your second source.” If Intel’s 14nm process is so superior, how come Intel execs didn’t convince Apple to dump frenemy Samsung?

I see three possible answers.

One is that the 14 nanometer process is woefully late. Deliveries of some Broadwell chips (the nickname of the next round of x-86 processors) are now slated for early- to mid-2015. Apple might feel that Intel’s process needs to mature before it can deliver 300 million units.

The second is that Intel’s claim of a three-year technology lead might be less than reliable. Samsung could be closer to delivering 14nm chips than Intel would like us (and itself) to believe.

Or perhaps Intel sees Apple as a real adversary that’s intent on designing all of its own processors, even for laptops and desktops that are currently powered by x-86 chips. But even so, why not become the preferred fabricator?

The Intel enigma remains: There’s no clear, resounding answer to the “what’s next” question, only some lingering puzzlement over what happened?

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