Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

Paul Otellini Busts Some Myths About Intel

Chipmaker Intel has suffered from the notion that since it isn’t having much success in either the smartphone or tablet computing space, its growth prospects in the so-called post-PC era are limited.

That, said Intel CEO Paul Otellini, is one of three myths he aimed to bust today in a speech at a Credit Suisse technology conference in Phoenix.

First off, he pointed to the emerging markets. Intel is seeing significant growth in countries like Argentina, where the market for PCs grew 38 percent in 2011; Venezuela, where it grew 34 percent; and Russia, which grew 26 percent. “This emerging market trend is real,” Otellini said. And it’s not likely to end anytime soon: In 2010, the top five PC markets by country were the U.S., China, Germany, Japan and Brazil. In 2015, Intel forecasts suggest, the top five will be China, the U.S., Brazil, Russia and Germany.

With all the attention on phones and tablets, especially Apple’s iPad and various Android devices, the PC has gotten a little stale, Otellini conceded, so it’s time to make it exciting again. Intel’s answer is the Ultrabook. Thinner, sleeker notebooks that boot up fast and have touch-enabled screens and long battery lives will get consumers excited again, he said.

And don’t forget the part that Intel plays in the cloud: Most of the servers running cloud services have Intel chips inside them. And Intel’s data center business has doubled over five years and will double again in the next five. “This is where we see more and more of our customers buying from us direct. They’re building custom boards to run the data centers at Facebook, at Amazon, at Google, at Baidu and Alibaba,” he said.

Myth No. 2: Intel chips are too power-hungry for mobile devices.

Moore’s Law is still alive and well, Otellini said. In 1997, Intel built a supercomputer called ASCI Red that could compute one teraflop. It required 2,500 square feet of space and 9,298 chips to get the number crunching done. Earlier this month, Intel announced a chip codenamed Knight’s Corner that can do a teraflop by itself. In the mainstream marketplace, today’s notebooks are 300 times more powerful than notebooks built in 1995.

Intel, Otellini says, has built its own demonstration Android smartphone to show off the upcoming Medfield generation of its Atom processor, due in 2012. When its power consumption during basic phone functions like things like standby, audio and HD video playback is measured, Intel isn’t the best, but it’s not the worst, either. It usually comes in second or third place when compared against smartphones already in the market, but ahead of others, though Otellini didn’t say which phones it beat and which ones it didn’t.

And on three computing performance benchmarks it beats the others hands down: When using a browser on a phone, the Intel chip smokes the others. It also wins on GLBench, a graphics metric, and SunSpider, a Java test.

Myth No. 3: Intel can’t compete with ARM.

Yes, it’s true that ARM-based chips are everywhere that Intel would like its Atom chips to be and are showing no signs of giving ground.

But, noted Otellini, despite the growth of newer platforms, Intel and its x86 instruction set still command the largest army of software developers — north of 14 million — and the largest body of software created so far — more than 6 million applications. “As we come into these markets we’re bringing an incredible legacy of people that know Intel and know the Intel architecture.”

Then there’s Windows 8. Otellini called it “one of the best things that has ever happened to our company.” It will allow tablets to gain mainstream acceptance, especially in the enterprise that they don’t have today. “A lot of IT managers are worried about security and about porting their legacy applications to an Android tablet or an iPad. What Microsoft is doing is making that seamless for them.”

Finally, he said, Intel has a history of entering markets dominated by someone else and dominating them over time. In the early 1980s as the first Intel chips went into PCs, the dominant machines on the market were the VIC-20 and the Apple II. In the early 1990s, when Intel first went after servers, the dominant chips came from Sun Microsystems and IBM. Now Intel rules both markets. And the same thing has happened in supercomputing. (See the slide from Otellini’s presentation below, though someone needs to check the first field at left because the VIC-20 appears twice.)

Did his mythbusting work? Intel shares rose a bit today, closing up 12 cents to $23.58, and the shares are up 12 percent so far this year. We’ll see how right he was in 2012.

Update: Intel has corrected Otellini’s slide. No longer does it show the VIC-20 occupying two market segments. Well, it was kinda popular.


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