In Battle With AMD, Intel Gets Its Groove Back

The battle between processor powerhouses Intel and Advanced Micro Devices has been one of the fiercest the tech industry has seen in years. After leading for many years with its x86 line of chips that powered most of the PCs and servers bought by businesses and consumers, Intel got clobbered by AMD for the past couple of years as its smaller rival introduced more innovative chip designs and undercut the industry leader on price.

Now the Intel empire is striking back. Intel in recent months has regained its groove and is gaining ground with a string of quad-core processor releases, a new relationship with Apple, and, most recently, new inroads with Sun Microsystems.

Wall Street isn't pleased that the competition is hurting margins and stock values. Just how big an impact the competition is having was evident this week when AMD announced a fourth-quarter loss of $574 million. The company laid the blame on its $4.5 billion acquisition of ATI Technologies and the price war with Intel.

While AMD takes some hits and Intel builds its momentum, Kevin Knox, VP of AMD's commercial business, says the company is betting that everything will change with the release of AMD's native quad-core processor in midyear.

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"I'm not going to sit here and tell you it hasn't become more competitive," Knox tells InformationWeek. "We're still kicking the bear. They're more competitive today, but we're still winning our share. It will be competitive, yes, for the next several months. Quad-core will be our breakaway." Intel declined to be interviewed for this story.

Customers are sitting on the sidelines cheering -- and hoping the battle will continue.

"This is driving innovation faster and driving prices down," says Dan Olds, a principal analyst with the Gabriel Consulting Group. "Without this competition, we wouldn't have seen the move to 64-bit as quickly. We'd be a lot farther behind if AMD hadn't come out with its successful Opteron, forcing Intel to respond. Then AMD did it again with dual-core, forcing Intel to respond. Now, Intel is first out of the gate with quad-core and AMD has to respond. For us, this means we're all getting faster chips, cheaper."

Jonathan Eunice, a principal IT adviser at Illuminata, agrees that the competition has been driving innovation in the chip market. "This is good. This is all very good," says Eunice. "It's good to have these organizations battling for your dollars. It's good for the ecosystem to have more than one choice and more than one supplier. If one of them should slip for a quarter or a year, there are other options available. That's a great place to be for a user."

But what's great for users isn't all that great for the vendors.

Intel had dominated the x86 chip market until upstart AMD picked up the pace of the competition in the last two years. AMD jumped headlong into the server arena and caught the market -- and even Intel -- by surprise by overhauling its memory design, pushing out combo 32-bit/64-bit x86 processors when Intel was advocating a 64-bit approach with Itanium processors that required rewriting applications, and then hit its stride with a powerful and well-received dual-core processor.

AMD's aggressive moves helped the company grab a good chunk of the server market. According to AMD, in the server and workstation area, the company held 2.8% of the market in 2003, but that number jumped to 27% in 2006.

"It was the perfect storm for AMD," says Eunice. "AMD got a lot of things right at the same time. Intel did not, at the time, seem to be very enthusiastic about advancing on those fronts. As a result, people started looking to AMD."

Charles King, a principal analyst with Pund-IT Research, says AMD had dealt Intel a solid and lasting blow.

"Intel tried to laugh off Opteron when AMD first brought it to market," says King. "When customers bought Opteron in droves, Intel had to rethink that. I'm not sure Intel will ever recover the kind of market dominance they had before Opteron."

But no one should ever count out a company with as many financial, intellectual, and technical resources as Intel has.

Industry watchers agree that 2006 was a strong year, even a comeback year, for Intel. King says Intel took its licks from AMD but then the company came roaring back. "Intel achieved a really singular goal in completely revisiting their entire PC and server lines," says King. "They've refreshed everything. It was a huge job. There were 22 different processors that they refreshed last year. They're very well positioned now."

Intel has had some big wins in the market, and in the PR realm as well. Intel was first to market this past November with a quad-core offering. Since AMD executives won't put a tighter timeline than "midyear" on the release of their quad-core processor, Intel has a seven to nine month headstart. Of course, AMD was quick to fire back, calling its future processor a native quad-core and contending that Intel simply lashed together two dual cores for its quad. In a market this competitive, though, being first is always an advantage. And until side-by-side comparisons can be done, its unclear whether AMD's "native" quad-core approach offers significant benefits.

Intel, last year, also shored up an Apple partnership, with Apple coming out with Intel-based Mac Pro workstations and upgrading MacBooks with Intel's Core 2 Duo processors. This week, Intel and Sun announced a partnership of their own. Sun had a pretty monogamous relationship with AMD, but now Intel is joining in. AMD's Knox says Sun's partnering with Intel did not come as a surprise, as they were aware that Sun has been looking for new ways to push Solaris. He adds that Intel's new deal with Sun is "not cannibalizing the Sun/AMD business."

It is a blow, though, particularly in the PR realm.

"It's a vote of confidence for Intel and it shows how far they've come with their latest processors," says Steve Kleynhans, a research VP with Gartner. "There are a lot of companies, like HP and Dell, that sell both AMD and Intel. This was the one player that was exclusive with AMD. This certainly is a bit of a blow to AMD. Intel had run into a lot of issues over the first part of this decade and it took them a while to get back on track. They're a huge powerhouse and when they get focused on something, they can really get the market to assemble around their capabilities or around their products."

Eunice says Intel clearly is back in the fight.

"Let's say they have their groove back," he adds. "But let's remember how much they got themselves knocked around by AMD. Intel has certainly had some wins, but AMD is still very strong and present in the market. It's still going to be a fight."

And the customer will come out the winner.