Intel takes aim at AMD’s cash cow

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Intel takes aim at AMD’s cash cow

Santa Clara (CA) – Intel today announced what it called a “solid start” into the new year. But the company can’t hide that it was a mixed bag of good news and bad news overall, with higher revenue but less profit, a growing  mobile but increasingly painful flash business and fabs that are producing lots of 45 nm processors. However, if compared to AMD, Intel is increasing its advantage every day and is inflicting damage on AMD’s most profitable product – the high-end 4P and 8P Opteron processors.

If Intel’s Q1 result is any indication than analysts and investors may be in for a rough call this Thursday, when AMD will be announcing its first quarter financial result. We have heard from Intel senior vice president Pat Gelsinger as well as several industry sources that Intel may have recorded its strongest market share swing ever in the MP server market between Q4 2007 and Q1 2008. Usually, there isn’t much focus on this segment, but this news may be critical for AMD, as it it’s the segment that has the highest profit margins in the CPU market and in the end pays the bills.

Intel CEO Paul Otellini declined to officially comment on possible market share gains and told analysts that he would prefer to wait for independent market estimates instead. However, he confirmed that it was a “very strong quarter for server” processors, mainly due to “the ramp of the Caneland platform” (which includes the Xeon 7300 series Tigerton CPU). Asked about possible market share gains, he said: “We expect good news.”

The numbers published in the Q1 report support Otellini’s remarks. The digital enterprise group has not been posting strong gains in recent quarters. Q1 2008, however, saw Intel’s CPU and chipset revenues climb by 15% from about $4.8 billion in Q1 2007 to $5.3 billion in Q1 2008. Profitability was up sharply by 87%, from $931 million to more than $1.7 billion. Since mobile processors are not included in this segment and average selling prices have not shifted dramatically over the past four quarters, there is an indication that high-margin processors are playing a more important role. However, Intel noted that improved efficiency as well as the move to 45 nm have resulted in a declining average cost of CPUs as well.

Analysts such as Dean McCarron from Mercury Research are not putting numbers on market shares yet, but McCarron believes that a lot of big server deals went to Intel during Q1. That of course, was because of AMD’s TLB bug in the B2 Barcelona Opteron: “The server market is very sensitive to stability issues,” McCarron said. And even if AMD initially claimed that the industry did not negatively react to the stepping issue, there is little doubt that the B2 brought down Opteron sales. McCarron told us that AMD needs to begin working on educating the market on its B3 Barcelona and trying to get customers back.

The Barcelona disaster may have been amplified in Q1 especially because Intel was aggressively driving quad-core processors into the market. In the dual-socket segment, quad-core Xeons are now accounting the majority of Intel’s processor shipments. Most Xeons are now manufactured in 45 nm, delivering not only and additional marketing advantage, but also a cost advantage over AMD. Everything combined, Intel may have had an easy game with AMD in Q1.       

But not everything is about servers. Intel is heavily pushing its 45 nm advantage over AMD, stating that the company has shipped more than 8 million 45 nm processors so far, at an output that exceeds 100,000 units per day.

Desktop processors are still declining, but Intel will be focusing its business in this segment on all-in-one products for consumers and vPro machines for businesses. Much of the processor focus has transitioned to mobile. But while Intel says that, sometime this year, mobile CPU shipments will outpace desktop CPU shipments (the company previously expected this to happen in 2009), the balance sheet shows that the company is actually experiencing slower growth in mobile revenue and declining profitability in this segment. Annual growth is in the lower double digits, down from more than 20% last year. The company showed a mobile profit of $1.2 billion for Q1 2008, down from $1.4 billion in Q1 2007. Intel’s new goldmine, the Atom processor, of course can fix this problem, especially since Intel said that the interest in the processor is higher than expected.

Intel’s greatest concern at this time is the slowing NAND flash business. The company recently moved its NOR business and its 1700 employees into Numonyx, but its NAND joint venture with Micron continues to negatively impact its bottom line. Intel said that flash output on a gigabit basis has increased in Q1, while average selling prices have dropped. The company expects flash prices to decline further this year. In an effort to limit its losses, Intel said that it will not increase its gigabit output over the course of this year.