Can Pat Gelsinger turn the chipmaking giant around?
“Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive.” So said Andy Grove, the Hungarian emigre who helped turn Intel from a scrappy startup in the 1960s into the firm that did more than any other to put the “silicon” in Silicon Valley. They will be ringing in the ears of Pat Gelsinger, Intel’s new boss, who took over on February 15th. He takes the helm of a company that looks, from some angles, to be in rude health. With $78bn in revenue in 2020, it is the world’s biggest chipmaker by sales. It has a 93% share of the market for powerful—and lucrative—chips that go into data-centre computers, an 81% share in desktop pcs, and operating margins of around 30%.
Yet Intel’s share price has underperformed those of rivals. Nvidia, a firm with one-seventh of Intel’s revenues, has a market capitalisation, at $370bn, that is half as high again. The manufacturing technology on which much of Intel’s success was built has fallen behind. It has missed the smartphone revolution. Some of its big customers, such as Apple and Amazon, are turning into competitors. Mr Gelsinger inherits quite the in-tray, then.
Start with production. Chipmaking is propelled by the quest for smallness. Shrinking the components in integrated circuits, these days to tens of nanometres (billionths of a metre), improves the performance of both the components and the microchip as a whole. For decades Intel led the way, its “Tick-tock” strategy promising a manufacturing revolution every other year. Now “it has lost its mojo,” says Alan Priestley of Gartner, a research firm, who worked at Intel for many years. Its “ten nanometre” chips were originally pencilled in for 2015 or 2016 but did not start trickling out until 2019—an unprecedented delay. The technology is still not mature. In July Intel said the next generation of “seven nanometre” chips would not arrive until 2022, a delay of at least six months.