Company / division: Intel
Waymo Uses Intel Chips for Autonomous Driving Technology (Sep 18, 2017)
With data centers a big exception, Intel has struggled to take a major share of most of the new chip technology markets that have emerged over the last twenty years, failing in mobile, tablets, wearables, and others. The automotive space has been another where it’s clearly been very serious – its Mobileye acquisition being the biggest sign of that seriousness – and yet has lost out to other big chip vendors including Qualcomm and Nvidia for some big contracts. In that context, I bet it’s been begging Google/Waymo for years to let it talk abbot the two companies’ partnership in powering autonomous driving technology, because it’s something of a coup. The two companies are now finally talking about that partnership in blog posts and coverage by TechCrunch linked below. Waymo has largely developed its own computing platform for self-driving cars internally but has apparently leaned on Intel chips almost from the beginning. There’s definitely some of the article here that feels overblown – talk of scale, for example, seems odd in the context of a fleet that currently numbers in the hundreds, while the idea that autonomy and self-driving “represents a significant portion of the chipmaker’s business” also feels off even with the inclusion of Mobileye. The words “car” and “autonomous driving” barely appear in Intel’s latest 10-Q, for example, and mostly in the context of that acquisition. But this is a big win for Intel, and one that’s remained quiet for a remarkably long time. It won’t by itself dramatically change Intel’s fortunes in this space, but it’s great validation that Intel is a worthy player given that Waymo is considered one of the leading companies in autonomous driving.
Toyota, Ericsson, Intel, NTT, and other companies have formed a consortium to figure out ways to manage the massive explosion of data that will be generated by cars over the coming years. As cars become more autonomous, they will need to gather enormously more data from cameras, radar, LIDAR, and other sensors and transmit at least a subset of that data over networks to central repositories for processing and analysis. That, in turn, is going to require some big decisions about which data to process locally, what needs to be sent over the air, and how much and which data to store on an ongoing basis in both locations. Since carmakers like Toyota don’t really have much experience with that kind of thing, network infrastructure vendor Ericsson and chip vendor Intel among others are going to work together with them to figure some of this stuff out, and have left the door open for others to join their effort in future. Notably absent from this initiative are other big automotive chip vendors like Nvidia, any cloud service companies beyond Japan’s NTT, or mapping companies like HERE, and given the strong roles they’re playing or likely to play in this area, the consortium does need to add additional members (including ones who compete with the founding members) if it’s to make real headway here.
Intel Shutters First Party Wearables Business (Jul 20, 2017)
I’ll start with my usual caveat on so-called “gigabit” wireless services: though theoretical throughputs on devices with the new modems being discussed here can reach gigabit per second speeds, the real-world experience is going to be a fraction of that. In other words, even if the reporting in this article is correct, Apple isn’t going to be missing out on true gigabit speeds any more than the other device vendors will have them. The second caveat is that even the more realistic speeds will only be available where carriers have upgraded their networks to support them, which will be far from everywhere for the near future. With those caveats out of the way, though, Apple will be one of the few device vendors out there without these faster modems in its devices over the next year. However, as the article rightly points out, Apple has rarely been willing to put cutting edge new modem technology in its devices at the same time as others, generally preferring to wait for the technology to mature before deploying it, as it notably did with both 3G and LTE. There is, of course, this time also the added complication of Qualcomm being the only supplier with a gigabit modem ready to go, and the fact of Apple’s very adversarial relationship with Qualcomm and its decision last year to introduce Intel modems. I’m inclined to believe the reporting here is accurate, but I’m not sure it’s really all that significant – in real-world experience, there will be very little difference for many customers over the next couple of years, and Apple will almost certainly jump on the gigabit modem bandwagon next year, likely through Intel.
Intel had a pretty good quarter for the most part, expanding margins as several of its divisions performed better off the back of rising prices and lower unit costs. The only division that didn’t grow was the security division (home of McAfee), which Intel has already announced it intends to spin off. Client Computing, home of Intel’s traditional PC business but also newer areas like tablets, phones, modems and so on, grew by 6%, though in large part because of rising prices (up 7% year on year) rather than volumes (down 4% year on year). The trend in Data Center, which makes up a little under a third of revenue, was similar, with volumes down 1% but prices up 6%, driving overall growth, though at a slower rate than in the past, and its margins have also fallen recently as it invests in new processes which should pay dividends over the longer term. Intel’s non-volatile memory group benefited from the release of Intel’s new Optane memory products, which have contributed to very rapid growth, but which has also plunged that division into the red because of heavy investment in the new processes and technology. IoT is also growing at a decent clip, though it’s much smaller than the two big divisions. One other division is Intel’s Programmable Systems Group, which was formed when it acquired Altera, which made filed-programmable gate array (FPGA) technology. That’s growing at a decent clip and is also now profitable, which is good progress from when the acquisition closed. Overall, Intel’s two main businesses are performing well for it at the moment, though the fact that it’s having to invest heavily to remain competitive in several key areas has held margins down below where they might be.
via Intel (PDF)
ARM-Based Windows 10 PCs to Arrive in Q4 2017 (Apr 21, 2017)
Intel Kills its Developer Forum, its Big Annual Event (Apr 17, 2017)
This makes tons of sense – there’s never been any meaningful synergy between the core Intel chips business and the McAfee business, and separating it off frees Intel up to focus entirely on its core, where it has plenty of work to do already given the maturity of the PC industry, its struggles to break into mobile and other newer areas, and the new threats in its data center business.
Intel “Sets the Record Straight” on Moore’s Law (Mar 28, 2017)
Intel is having a technology day today at which it’s talking up its manufacturing capabilities and offering evidence that not only is Moore’s Law alive and well but that Intel is ahead of its competitors in driving innovation in chip making. Intel obviously has a very strong incentive to argue that Moore’s Law isn’t – contrary to recent claims and reporting – dead, both as the originator of the idea and as perhaps its biggest corporate beneficiary. The reality is that we continue to see many of the benefits of Moore’s Law playing out, even if it isn’t necessarily playing out at exactly the same speed and in the same way as in the past (though Intel argues that it is still doing those things). Intel’s claim to be three years ahead of its competitors in process technology would certainly be disputed by major competitors and I suspect most analysts too – that’s hyperbole which isn’t supported by the reality. But Intel does lay out some interesting evidence to back its claim that there’s plenty of headroom left in Moore’s Law.
Intel Consolidates its AI Teams (Mar 23, 2017)
Intel is announcing that it’s taking its various AI teams and consolidating them under Naveen Rao, who ran the AI company Nervana which Intel acquired last year. This feels like a sensible move from a company which has dabbled in AI in various parts of the organization but hasn’t become known as an AI powerhouse. Where things get slightly less credible is where Intel talks in the announcement about rallying the industry around a set of standards for AI as it has with past computational trends. Whereas Intel was a major player in personal computing, one of the examples it cites, it’s not nearly in the same position of influence with regard to AI, and so this feels like hubris rather than realism on what Intel’s role will be. Intel also talks, though, about bringing AI to more people, which sounds a lot like the “democratization of AI” message we’ve been hearing a lot from Microsoft lately, and which others including Google have also started parroting lately. This feels like it’s going to become an increasingly important theme in AI: less about individual companies owning capability and more about packaging up and making that capability available to anyone who wants to use it.
It’s striking to me that this piece never mentions Nvidia once, even though that chip company has been making much of the noise in the automotive space over the past year, especially when it comes to autonomous driving. That prominence is clearly a driver for this deal, with Intel signing some of its own deals but not getting nearly the buzz Nvidia has been. Mobileye, meanwhile, has been striking deals left and right with a variety of players (though it recently ended its relationship with Tesla). Just in the last three months, it’s announced partnerships with HERE and BMW over mapping, but it’s also in many of other car manufacturers’ existing cars and their autonomous plans. Given Intel’s ongoing struggles in the mobile space, its recent loss of the Microsoft server business to Qualcomm and the ARM architecture, and the ongoing stagnation in PCs, it needs some new drivers of growth, and in-car technology could provide that. Mobileye is also attractive as a business – it’s growing fast (almost 50% year on year in 2016) and profitable, with fairly high margins. So this isn’t an acquisition that will take years to contribute to Intel’s business, although its overall scale is still small. But it’s integration opportunity and the eventual opportunity to sell a joined up solution of chips and sensors which Intel will be focusing on here.
The data center business at Intel accounts for almost a third of its revenues, has high margins, and has been growing considerably faster than its Client Computing segment (which includes PCs, tablets, and mobile phones). And it’s done well in large part because of commitments from big players like Microsoft to using its chips in their data center servers. But now Microsoft is saying it plans to switch to using ARM-based chips made by Qualcomm in its Azure server infrastructure instead, which could put a dent in Intel’s future growth and reduce its share from the 99% cited in this Bloomberg article. This isn’t imminent – it’s a step on a path Microsoft is committed to, but hasn’t been rolled out to any customer facing servers yet. But ARM-based chips have been cited as potential substitutes for Intel chips in server farms for some time now, so this could be the beginning of a dramatic shift in the next few years. That’s obviously terrible news for Intel, for which the data center business has been a useful source of growth and margins in recent years. Meanwhile, this is such a small business for Qualcomm today that it doesn’t even get mentioned in its quarterly earnings materials, but that could obviously change rapidly going forward.
Corporate venture capital in Silicon Valley is always fascinating: these are the things big companies choose to invest in indirectly rather than directly, which often leads to fairly complex relationships between some of these companies (notably Google’s relationship with Uber). My Beyond Devices Podcast co-host Aaron Miller did a great breakdown of this feature of the tech industry a while back – have a listen to this episode if you’re interested. It appears Google and Intel were the biggest investors in 2016, with some really sizable bets made by Google in particular during the year. I wish I could see more details from the report, but CB Insights pulls a bait and switch in which it first asks for just an email address and then follows up with a demand for a phone number and job function, so I’m not downloading it.
Intel’s 7560 Modem Could Push Next iPhone to 1Gbps – PCMag (Feb 21, 2017)
There’s some conjecture here on two points: that simply because Intel has added CDMA/EVDO capability to its next LTE modem Apple will use it globally, and that a modem capable of delivering peak throughput of a gigabit per second will actually do so in real world environments. The latter is an obvious stretch, given that real-world performance is always a fraction of the theoretical peak, but the former may well be a stretch too. I’m not convinced that Intel could ramp up production quickly enough to be the supplier for all of the next generation of iPhones – that would be a massive step up over its iPhone 7 supply. And I’m not convinced that Apple, having finally gained a measure of redundancy by dual sourcing modems for the iPhone 7, would so quickly jump back into single sourcing, especially given the performance limitations of the current generation Intel modems. That’s not to say this would never happen, and it’s obviously a very interesting point of leverage in the context of the current bad blood between Apple and Qualcomm, but I still think it’s somewhat far fetched at this point.