Intel Strikes Back: How CEO Pat Gelsinger Plans to Revive a Microchip Goliath
Despite many challenges, like companies moving to in-house chip fabrication and delays in processing node technology, Intel hopes to forge ahead with a new CEO and roadmap.
Venture back to 1995, and Intel was on top of the world. The semiconductor giant has come a long way from creating the world's first microprocessor, the Intel 4004, in 1971. By 2000, Intel's share price reached an all-time high, which since remains unsurpassed.
Intel's 4004 processor. Image used courtesy of Intel
"Intel Inside" quickly became a hallmark brand slogan in the PC world, thus reflecting the company's marketplace ubiquity. Even Apple initiated what would blossom into a 15-year partnership with the supplier. Intel's x86 architecture was a proven winner, and it'd ride that momentum for nearly two decades.
Despite the steep upward growth and being an industry heavy-hitter, things haven't always been going according to plan.
Twenty-six years is a lifetime in a tech landscape fraught with competition and innovation. While the 2000s and 2010s were largely good to Intel, a turning point in the company's CPU dominance was forthcoming. A surging AMD began clawing back market share, making strides in both power consumption and performance. Conversely, Intel's Broadwell and Skylake architecture upgrades weren't overly impactful.
Supply constraints later impacted Intel's dealings with Apple, which might have delayed the launch of some Apple laptops. Additionally, shortages led multiple PC vendors to use outdated Intel chips or even intermittently switch to AMD. Also, Intel's brief focus on high-end CPUs left PC makers and users behind. Those events, overall, blemished an otherwise sterling reputation throughout Intel's history.
More recently, the company has struggled to introduce smaller process nodes within its processor lineup. While competitors like AMD and TSMC have forged onward with 7nm processes, Intel has delayed this advancement more than once. Once a customer, Apple has even designed its own, in-house 5nm M1 CPUs, thus signaling an end to that longstanding Intel partnership.
Apple's M1 chipset. Image used courtesy of Apple
Overall, stagnating innovation and fabrication woes have brought Intel back down to earth. Throw in an outsourcing contract with TSMC for the Core i3 CPU family, and the picture hasn't looked rosy for the hardware giant.
However, despite these recent challenges, there's a compelling case that the company has been resting on its laurels. How can it rebound?
Forging Ahead: Pat Gelsinger Takes the Helm
Intel, hoping to gain a boost and a cultural shift, following CEO Bob Swan's brief stint, VMWare's Pat Gelsinger filled the vacancy in mid-February.
Pat Gelsinger, the new CEO of Intel. Image used courtesy of Intel
Despite being a "new" CEO, Gelsinger was around back in 1979. He was the company's first Chief Technology Officer, leading 14 microprocessor programs while helping Intel's Core and Xeon CPUs rise to prominence.
With this change in command comes a new roadmap.
Roadmaps to Success
Gelsinger plans to restore Intel's strong pedigree in the microprocessor space rapidly. Interestingly, he's also inherited some recent victories.
Though overall CPU market figures are murky, the chipmaker has gained notable ground in the gaming realm. Three out of four leading CPUs amongst Steam users are Intel chips. Accordingly, AMD's shortages and Intel's discounts have allowed Intel to eliminate competing gains.
Naturally, the scope of Intel's resurgence will transcend just the gaming niche. The company hopes to ramp up production domestically and in Europe. Gelsinger aims to open new semiconductor factories in the U.S. and Europe by year's end.
However, he concedes that supply won't reasonably meet the demand for another one or two years. Manufacturing facilities take a long time to construct and bring fully online. Additionally, Intel plans to recruit over 1,000 employees for multiple Israeli R&D centers in 2021.
Will there be outside funding? Gelsinger and key Intel board members recently met with President Joe Biden to discuss American semiconductor investment.
The goal is securing a multi-billion-dollar support pledge from the current administration in hopes of bolstering the chip sector and mitigating existing shortages. These subsidies could help reduce reliance on China and other Asian fabricators.
Another expected change surrounds the company's CPU naming conventions. Intel aims to reduce the size of its chips and processes while abandoning the nanometer nomenclature.
Intel's newest roadmap includes shifting from nm to angstroms. Image used courtesy of Intel
Instead, Gelsinger wants to introduce a numerical system for each chip, namely the Intel 4 and Intel 20A (formerly 5nm). What seems like a minor change is actually refocusing on angstroms.
Intel plans to adopt this unit as a measure of innovation; one angstrom equates to 0.1 nanometers. This renovation suggests that Intel's "atomic" focus will bring smaller architectures throughout the next decade. New 3D transistor layouts and power delivery networks could enable this.
Finally, new partnerships may also revive Intel moving forward. The company will soon build many of Qualcomm's CPUs and has even signed a production deal with Amazon.
Hoping to outpace rivals like Nvidia, TSMC, AMD, and Samsung; however, the company's prediction of recovery by 2025 aligns with analyst forecasts, many of whom believe Intel won't challenge rivals for another two to three years. It's also rumored that Intel may try to purchase GlobalFoundries to supercharge production.
Despite the challenges and this revitalization with a new roadmap and focus, there are still the financial aspects to consider.
Building a Better Future
All in all, Intel aims to push forward and move on to its next batch of innovations. To do so, Intel will likely need new engineers to tackle these projects. The company is pouring over $20 billion into manufacturing and R&D. Experienced professionals will be critical to getting Intel's new "atomic-level" processor designs rolling. Intel already employs over 110,000 workers worldwide.
Knowing Gelsinger's background and company history, it's not unreasonable to think his presence might draw more EEs into the fold. While the future is uncertain, Intel is poised to make positive inroads.