Intel rivals have pushed forward with chips manufactured using more advanced process nodes, leaving the company in a difficult situation and scrambling to catch up. With a new Intel veteran in charge, the company might just have a chance of restoring its former glory.
We learned this week that Intel CEO Bob Swan would be stepping down and make way for a new executive at the helm of the troubled silicon giant. He will be succeeded by VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger, who has the perfect background as he previously spent 30 years at Intel and played an instrumental role in delivering the 80486 processor.
According to a report from the Oregonian, the incoming CEO held an all-hands staff meeting this week where he briefed everyone on the company’s new direction.
The timing of this move is interesting as the silicon giant has been looking to outsource some of its chip manufacturing to TSMC, which is already producing chips using a 5nm process node and getting ready to move to 3nm as soon as next year.
Gelsinger is only slightly more humble in his discourse than his predecessors. He notes that “we have to deliver better products to the PC ecosystem than any possible thing that a lifestyle company in Cupertino” makes. “When executed well, it has established Intel as a leader in every aspect.” Factories, he said, are “the power and the soul of the company […] We have to be that good in the future,” he added.
Of course, he’s referring to Apple, who’s been refining its custom Arm silicon for years to a point where it’s now set to replace Intel across the board. Last year, the Cupertino giant revealed bold plans of a two-year transition to Apple Silicon for the entire Mac family of products. The first of these is the M1 SoC, which is powering entry level MacBooks and is already showing incredible performance per watt when compared to equivalent offerings from Intel and AMD.
Gelsinger knows he’s going to fight an uphill battle against both Apple and AMD, with the former replacing the need for its mobile and workstation CPUs and the later eroding its market share in the gaming and enthusiast markets. Qualcomm is also planning to develop custom silicon for the server and high performance computing — one of Intel’s core strengths — through strategic acquisitions, putting even more pressure on Intel. Microsoft, Google, and Amazon are also working on custom chips for their specific needs.
A decade ago, it’d have been unfathomable for Intel to give up on chip manufacturing considering its track record. However, the company is facing a new reality where fabless companies including Apple, Qualcomm, MediaTek, Nvidia, and AMD are able to move faster by focusing only on designing better chips.
Later this month, Intel will report its 2020 financial results along with an update on its work towards manufacturing using the 7nm process node. In the meantime, all we’re getting are promises that its 11th-gen Rocket Lake-S desktop CPUs are capable of besting AMD’s Ryzen 5000 in terms of gaming performance, and that Xe GPUs will only get better as time goes on.