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Where to now for Intel?

26 November 2020

Intel is a name synonymous with computers.

In the pre IBM-PC days there were a raft of different CPU families from just as many manufacturers.

Zilog, Motorola, Signetics, MOS Technology, RCA... the list was long and seemed to grow longer every day.

It looked for a while as if the Motorola 68000 might become "the" 16-bit processor family of the future as it offered blistering performance and a wonderfully orthagonal instruction-set at a machine-code level. Programmers loved it and computer users enjoyed the speed it delivered.

Then IBM came along and launched their own desktop PC using an ankle-tapped Intel processor, the Intel 8088.

Despite being much slower and having an instruction-set that was clearly derived from the Intel 8080, an 8-bit processor two generations removed, the 8088 was cheap -- and now it was effectively endorsed by the world's biggest computer company.

This effectively assured Intel's fortunes for decades to come.

With the cachet of IBM behind them, Intel's processors became the foundation of a massive number of "PC compatible" machines and the company could hardly keep up with demand.

All the other microprocessor manufacturers were pretty much left in the dust, with demand for their products drying up or being limited to a few vertical markets.

And so it was for many years.

Sure, a few would-be competitors poked their heads out of the woodwork from time to time but those companies (such as Cyrix and AMD) were mainly making x86-compatible CPUs) never really challenged the dominance of Intel.

As the years ticked by, Intel enhanced and extended the performance and power of its CPU line-up. Pretty soon they were making everything from low-power devices for laptops to multi-core CPUs for enterprise solutions (at astonishingly high prices).

Although Cyrix shut up shop in 1997, AMD was still around but simply couldn't keep up in terms of value or absolute performance. This was Intel's game.

Then, a few short years ago, something very interesting happened.

AMD began to roll out its Zen CPU architecture in the form of the Ryzen series for desktops/workstations and the Epyc CPUs for enterprise solutions.

Suddenly it was "game on" with Intel and Intel was far from ready for the challenge.

In the past decade or so, Intel had really slowed down the pace of its innovation and development. New generations of its CPU families relied in incremental increases in clock speeds and a few extra cores to provide performance boosts. The underlying technology was barely changed. Perhaps one of the reasons for this was the problems that Intel were having moving to processes that allowed for smaller transistor sizes.

AMD seemed to have no such problem and with the arrival of Zen they rolled out not only a whole new architecture but also now builds that architecture using a much smaller 7nm process.

The result is that AMD has left Intel in its dust, delivering faster CPUs that use less power at a lower cost.

Intel's only response so far has been to promise that they'll catch up soon.

Talk is cheap.

As a result of AMD's ongoing improvements to its Ryzen and Epyc processor products, the market for Intel CPUs is drying up rapidly. With only promises to sell, Intel is in trouble with no apparent way to mitigate the damage done by AMD's "rabbit in the hat".

Of course Intel fanbois will continue to opt for the company's products -- at least for a while. System integrators may also continue to use its "core" series of processors until it's time to redesign their product-line but the writing is truly on the wall.

The fact that Apple is in the process of ditching Intel for its own, seemingly much superior, in-house silicon is just further proof that Intel is in big trouble.

Even the biggest, most powerful, most successful businesses eventually crumble under their own weight and inefficiencies. Could we be seeing this happen with Intel?

Have they already "crested" and are they now doomed to years of decline before either fading away completely, finding a suitable niche or being acquired by some other huge corporation for pennies on the dollar?

What do you think?

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