Analysis: AMD loses dominance in U.S. retail channel to Intel

  • Chicago (IL) – Yesterday, AMD issued a surprising revenue warning and said that especially the resale channel turned sour during Q1. Today, TG Daily learned that AMD’s market share in U.S. desktop retail dropped significantly and handed the majority of the market - which AMD had held for five subsequent quarters - to its rival. Is AMD in trouble?

    Answering this question may be a bit premature, but yesterday’s news from AMD certainly wasn’t great. Despite the fact that investors reacted positively to the announcement that the company will restructure its business and will have an eagle eye on its expenses, there are developments that could pose significant challenges for the company.

    Toni Duboise, senior analyst for desktop computing at Current Analysis, today confirmed to TG Daily that AMD has seen a dramatic drop in its U.S. market share for desktop retail sales. After a virtual tie in market shares in the third quarter of 2005, AMD was able to quickly expand its presence in U.S. retail to a stunning 77% in Q1 2006. Following a negligible drop to 76% in Q2 2006, AMD has been suffering a rapid decline in this segment – due to Intel’s aggressive pricing of Pentium 4 and Pentium D processors as well as the introduction of the Core 2 Duo. In Q3 2006, AMD held 66% and 54% in Q3 and Q4, respectively. Current Analysis estimates that AMD achieved only 43% in Q1 2007.

    According to Duboise, Intel increased its efforts in desktop retail during the 2006 back to school (BTS) season in the segment of entry-level systems with prices up to $500. “This was a decisive move for Intel since the value market make up close to half of desktops sold in retail,” Duboise said. “During BTS 2006, Intel not only had intensified its CPU pricing, which challenged AMD’s advantageous value proposition, but significantly reduced pricing on its legacy Pentium 4 products, which were suddenly selling in the value space against AMD’s Sempron. Prior to BTS 2006, Intel’s strategies were focused on the more lucrative high-end market, leaving the value volumes to AMD,” she explained.  
    Q3 still gave two thirds of the market to AMD; however, Intel’s two-pronged approach began to gain traction. “The dual Celeron and Pentium 4 strategy for the value desktop market continued in Q4 and was combined with Intel’s ability to reclaim the lead technology crown with its Core 2 Duo.  As a result, Intel’s aggressive product, promotional and pricing moves, coupled with more in-depth product lines, won out in terms of design wins and AMD’s U.S. retail desktop market share was reduced to an 8 point lead at 54%,” Duboise said.

    So why isit that AMD is suddenly facing such market pressures? Is it a homemade problem or is it the renewed strength of Intel? According to the analysts we talked to, it may be a combination of both. Nathan Brookwood of Insight64 reminded us of a scenario that AMD had outlined during the Q4 2006 conference call – that AMD did not have the volumes available to supply enough processors to all of its customers during the Christmas quarter and gave the larger customers such as Dell preferential treatment. “Resellers were certainly inconvenienced in Q4,” Brookwood said. “When AMD came back in Q1 and offered processors to its resellers, they answered ‘well, that’s ok, but we are using Intel processors now’. AMD is still recovering from this situation.”

    Duboise suggested that Intel’s and AMD’s reversal of fortunes in U.S. retail are a result of both Intel’s strengths and AMD’s weaknesses.  “Intel’s strengths are its technology lead with Core 2 Duo, its broad-based product lines, renewed commitment to the value space and intensified pricing and promotional strategies,” she said.  “AMD’s most obvious weakness is its uninspiring roadmap in terms of breadth and technology.”

    AMD appears to be facing several problems right now that, in combination with a strong Intel, will not be easy to solve. Alienating some of your customers is the one side of the story, technology the other. Both Brookwood and Duboise agreed that AMD will have to regain technology leadership as soon as possible. In volume space for desktop retail, Duboise said that an AMD comeback will require a “significant” update to the firm’s roadmap to “challenge Intel and re-commit to the value space - which it has rescinded to Intel as a likely result of either a supply shortage issue or simply a renewed focus on profitability options.

    On the high-end, the new Barcelona quad-core cannot be introduced a minute too early. The Opteron provided the foundation for AMD’s recent advantage in the market originally and it is likely that AMD will once again introduce products from top to bottom to attack Intel. “Intel’s strength means that AMD now has to fight a lot harder,” Brookwood explained. However, if Barcelona is really as good as AMD claims and it is good enough to hand the undisputed performance crown to AMD, then AMD would look a whole lot better almost immediately. “Whoever has the fastest chips, sets the pricing for both companies,” Brookwood said. The company with the slower processors will always have to discount their chips, while the company with the competitive advantage can get higher margins from its products.

    Availability adds another variable to this equation and it appears that there is some confusion on the market at this time. While we are hearing from some sources that Barcelona is on track and will make an early debut in Q3, some server vendors have told TG Daily that they do not expect volume availability until Q4 and therefore tell customers that systems will not ship until late Q4 2007 or early Q1 2008.

    AMD has not talked about its upcoming Kuma dual-cores and Agena quad-cores for desktop systems much, but they are apparently on track for a mid to late Q3 introduction. Meanwhile, Intel is preparing its 50-series of Core 2 Duo processors running on FSB1333 and DDR3-800 memory platforms. Information is scarce, but reliable sources are indicating that these processors will be seeing a “substantial” speed increase. One industry source mentioned to TG Daily that benchmarks comparing Intel Bearlake-X enthusiast platforms compared to AMD X2/Nvidia 680 platforms indicate that Intel will be going after AMD in a “vicious” way. “AMD looks pretty weak right now,” the source said. Besides releasing new products, Intel is also believed to be releasing a BIOS update for the 975X chipset to support FSB1333 processors.

    While we have to be careful with performance claims from both sides, there is enough information to believe that Intel is not slowing down and is likely to even increase the pressure to AMD. Last year in March, AMD officials told us that they do not believe the performance capability of a product on paper and the company was confident that the X2 processor would be able to outpace Intel’s Core 2 Duo. Intel is now preparing the first upgrade for the Core 2 Duo and we believe that AMD will need to take the threat more serious than last year. Kuma and Agena not only will have to offer competitive performance, they will also need to be available in volume quickly to allow AMD to move the fastest X2 models into the entry level segment below $150.   

    More details about AMD’s financial situation are expected to be released during the firm’s Q1 conference call. However, analysts such as Brookwood have described AMD’s situation already as “pretty ugly”. Lower revenues were expected already due to an earlier revenue warning issued by the company. However, the news that AMD is facing lower shipments as well has caught analysts on the wrong foot. “We anticipated that AMD would cut prices to maintain its market share. But it is a surprise that the market got so much worse between the end of February and the end of March,” Brookwood said.

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