Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

The Secret To Understanding Intel . . .

Posted by Tom Foremski - September 23, 2009

[I'm spending much of this week at the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco - it's one of the most important events for Intel and attracts tens of thousands of developers and reporters from around the world.]

I always look forward to IDF because it's a good time to catch up with friends from around the world, especially other journalists.

In town this week is (Mad) Mike Magee, one of the top UK reporters and editors and one of its few media entrepreneurs, having founded several media ventures.

Mike knows Intel and Advanced Micro Devices very well, and at various times has been an unpleasant thorn in both their sides due to his dogged reporting.

The keynote at IDF featured Intel CEO Paul Otellini, who seems rather reclusive and I wanted to catch one of his rare appearances.

I had another meeting so I couldn't be there physically at the keynote. I clicked around and followed a trail to the webcast section of the IDF web site only to find a message that the video will be posted 24 hours later. That's not a webcast. It made me wonder why Intel, with its focus on technology, was unable to webcast a presentation live by its chief executive and have it available immediately afterwards?

[Here is the link for the keynote videos but they are not embeddable... Keynote webcasts]

The key to understanding Intel is not its mastery of webcasts or creating embeddable videos. The key to understanding Intel is that it is obsessed with the technology of chip manufacturing.

That is the secret to understanding Intel, it is a chip manufacturer first, and a chip design company second. The only reason it makes microprocessors is that this is the most profitable type of chip -- (it used to make memory chips). Microprocessors are simply the most effective way to monetize its chip manufacturing technologies.

Intel is completely and utterly obsessed with chip manufacturing technologies. Its executives love to talk in nanometers, metal-oxides, and dielectric materials.

Just listen to Paul Otellini's keynote: "The pursuit of Moore's Law at Intel is unchanged. It's the foundation of everything we do... Two years ago we introduced the world's first 45 nanometer high-k metal gate silicon technology..."

He then goes on to show " a very cool picture" of a 32 nanometer transistor. And then he talks about ramps in production and the next generation 22 nanometer chip technology, holding up a large, hubcap sized silicon wafer covered with 22 nanometer chips.

I love this kind of talk because I used to cover the chip industry for more than 20 years. And I appreciate the huge achievements that Intel and others have made because I understand the obstacles.

Chip fabs are among the most expensive and complex industrial manufacturing systems of our times. Nearly every naturally occurring element in the periodic table is used to make chips, and with features that are just a few atoms wide--and then they are manufactured on a huge scale. Every year the chip industry makes more transistors than the world prints characters on paper in newspapers, magazines, office printers, photocopiers, etc.

I also have a chemistry degree and that helps me further appreciate the incredible work that has to be done to keep Moore's law on track.

Chemistry is derived from the practice of alchemy. And one of the goals of alchemists was to transform base metals such as lead into gold.

Intel's founders are all chemists and they have succeeded in realizing that goal of alchemy. They have managed to transform base materials such as sand (silicon oxide) into silicon chips that are worth far more than their weight in gold. Intel consistently manages to maintain gross margins in the 50 to 60 per cent range. It makes pots of gold...

So it's understandable that Intel loves to talk in nanometers and high metal oxides because that's how it makes money. But, that kind of talk means nothing to users of Intel chips, that messaging is far too esoteric.

But that's what makes Intel, and that's the key to understanding Intel -- it's a chip manufacturer first -- designs and applications come second.


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