This is a story of an industrial giant that is at the top of thek at the hands of the US Department of Justice, Intel is facing troubles of its own. The chip giant is having to defend itself against smaller chip manufacturers that are looking to take an axe to its 10-year reign at the top of the processor tree. fastest paced, most innovative and capital-hungry business in the world.
And how - self-confessed bouts of paranoia aside - the company has managed to dominate mind and market share for close to a decade.
But, as with every good story, there comes a twist - and Intel's could be about to be played out. The chip giant has the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on its heels, its customers are finding merit in its competitors' products and the whole landscape of computing seems ready for a disruptive paradigm shift.
The slings and arrows of the market aside, Intel is in an acute position with the FTC. With the opening arguments due to start next week, the FTC will claim that Intel used its pre-eminent position in the microprocessor market to unfairly force three computer makers - Compaq, Digital and Intergraph - to license their intellectual property to Intel's benefit and their own disadvantage.
The rumour mill has also generated noises that the administrative agency is looking into casting a broader net to snare the vendor's other aggressive business practices, which may have trespassed against US anti-monopoly laws.
But legal proceedings such as these are a long time coming and when the US government decided that Intel had stepped over the line, the semiconductor world was a different place than it is today. Intel owned nearly 90 per cent of the PC chip market. Today's figures show that it has slipped substantially.
IDC's latest research shows that Intel's share of the microprocessor market has dropped to a fraction more than 75 per cent in the fourth quarter of 1998, down from about 87 per cent the previous year. Still a commanding lead, but the trend isn't upwards.
Intel's loss has been AMD's gain. Its market share has more than doubled from 6.6 per cent to 15.5 per cent year-on-year. Looking only at the high-volume, low-end PC sector, the market split is closer to 50:50. And with the embarrassing desertion of Gateway, Compaq, Toshiba and others from the Intel 'insiders' fold, the chip giant is feeling understandably threatened.
But the battle was Intel's to lose - and lose it did. Industry analysts claim that Celeron has been a huge flop and the switch from Slot One to the 370 pin form-factor has simply created more confusion rather than helping the vendor regain the low-end initiative.
But it's not just in the processor market where Intel has slid - the chipset market has also seen an Intel dip. Via and SiS have competent products for the Pentium II/III market where the BX and LX once held sway.
Their foray into the graphics chip sector with the oft-heralded i740 has not produced a big winner. ATI and S3 both have a long lead and it doesn't look as if Intel can close the gap.
However, the chip maker has not been standing still. About 18 months ago, Intel began to invest in other technology businesses, sometimes for obvious reasons and other times in seemingly unrelated fields of endeavour.
The investment strategy seems to be reaching a crescendo with a lot of cash being spent over the past months. Intel had showered close to a billion dollars on the IT sector in the preceding 12 months, up from $300 million the previous year, according to Robert Mimetta, Intel's corporate business development representative in Santa Clara, California. The programme has been running for 10 years but was very low key until late 1997.
'The investments we make are aimed at expanding the PC and microprocessor market,' he says. 'We work with venture capitalists to help smaller companies with great ideas take their technology to market. We do silicon pretty well, but there are lots of things that we don't do well that we would like to see improved upon. Rather than buy up companies and bring them inside, we foster their growth outside Intel's walls.'
As proof, Mimetta offers the statistic that the manufacturer has made 130 investment transactions in the past year, but only four outright purchases.
Most recently, Intel has taken a 30 per cent stake in PictureTel, the teleconferencing market leader, reinforcing the convictions that Intel had first expressed when it launched the ProShare desktop video conferencing system five years ago. Video on PC requires a great deal of processor power so the pairing clearly plays to Intel's core business strengths.
The partners expect their collaboration to create a bigger and more competitive video conferencing industry that distributes products through a wider range of channels - and will also relieve Intel of the need to try to shift ProShare 500 through its current ill-suited channel.
Additional investments in Baltimore Technologies (internet e-commerce encryption), Lockheed Martin, Chips & Technologies, Digital's Alpha business, and various home networking firms and internet-related companies, have also been made over the previous two years.
'The unifying thought behind these widely scattered investments is to make the PC and network better value for our customers' customers,' explains Colin Green, strategic software technology manager for northern Europe at Intel. 'We hope that the investments are good ones and that our shareholders can continue to enjoy a good return. It is important with rapidly opening technologies, such as the internet, that Intel has access to the vision and the technology that is propelling the Net.'
But Intel has been busy with other sorts of investments, too. In the build-up to the launch of the Pentium III released last week, the company invested a lot of time and talent priming the pump of the software industry.
To put its chip competitors in the shade, Intel had to help drive new applications and revised versions of established applications to take advantage of the 70 new instructions that made their debut in the PIII.
The Intel marketing spotlight is a glow well worth basking in. It was generous with its technology partnering in the run-up to MMX a while back and is likewise sharing money, technical goodies and advice in its efforts to help get the software industry up to speed with its latest processor.
The manufacturer has been working with Lernout & Hauspie (speech recognition), Avid (video), MetaCreations (graphics), and Adobe (pre-press), among others.
Intel's rock is the processor business. No matter how odd or peripheral any given investment seems to be, it can always be traced back to that fundamental business interest of selling chips. The chip business only works in mega volumes and Intel has recognised that it isn't any sort of silicon fetish that propels computers out the door - it's applications ready for the hands of customers.
'Each level of assembler or integrator, from tier one PC vendors down to the Intel Product Integrator smaller assemblers, has its own unique characteristics,' explains Graham Palmer, product marketing manager for Europe at Intel. 'But one thing that ties them all together is their customers' need for quality and reliability. This is especially crucial for smaller assemblers where any defects have a disproportional impact.' Flexibility is the key, he thinks, to making PC assemblers happy.
Back on the home front of the processor business, there are limits to 'co-opetition'. Intel has been a very jealous competitor in the past and continues to be so. The years it spent litigating with AMD over the 287 and 386MHz chips is testimony to its tenaciousness.
And don't expect the chip maker to take Gateway's defection to AMD lightly.
Gateway's K6-3 powered PCs to be launched this spring will be a wake up call that Intel is unlikely to sleep through - hence the investor reaction to mark down the share of the two rivals.
AMD is boxing way above its weight when it takes on Intel and, as a result, is choosing its shots very carefully, according to Richard Baker, marketing manager for Northern Europe at AMD: 'We take rifle shots rather than shotgun blasts because we don't enjoy the same scale of operation as the competition does.
'We are concentrating, for the moment, on consumer and small businesses through our dealer network of integrators and assemblers. We provide lots of assistance to that sector and our advancing market share shows that our strategy is working,' he adds. 'Fast chips are for the gamers. We're going after the people that need value and that's most business users.'
Baker says the market dynamics are subject to change - AMD is readying the multi-processor K7 for launch later this year as even smaller businesses discover the need for high powered database and Web servers.
AMD provides market intelligence and market support but not money to its dealers. 'That was fairly low on our dealers list of priorities when we asked them,' Baker says. 'We've been asked to help get the message to the user and look ahead for opportunities. The small assemblers and integrators are in the trenches and need our vantage point more than they need co-operative advertising funds.'
Intel isn't the only one to make investments that further the core business, he adds. 'AMD has always been active in networking and we have made a number of smaller investments to further this business. We don't drop half a billion dollars on suffering Korean DRam makers, but our seed capital is paying off, especially in the area of home networking.'
The manufacturer has recently joined with Computer Associates to develop additional network management business.
'Of course, we are deeply appreciative to Intel for the great job that it's doing in expanding the market,' Baker notes, not without humour.
'By spending its money, Intel is creating a bigger sector for all of us to share.'
A lot of Intel's strategic investment is focused on enabling the chip technology that is beginning to peep over the horizon. With 900MHz PIIIs ready for stealth demos, having the associated bits and bobs ready to hand is essential for Intel to forge ahead of the competition as production nears.
No sooner was the ink dry on the investment stakes in Samsung ($100 million) and Micron Technologies ($500 million), than a similar deal with Toshiba was struck. Despite the recent awkwardness of Toshiba's portable chip choice - AMD again - Intel is looking ahead. For it to have a business story in the fourth quarter and 2000 onwards, all memory producers need to be prepared to boost production of Rambus Direct DRams and money is always a persuasive lever.
Toshiba is Japan's second largest chip manufacturer and, although undisclosed, the amount Intel has primed it with would certainly need to be in the same order of magnitude as its earlier Rambus coercion initiatives. Without Rambus memory, Intel's money-making, high-end CPUs, are stalled and the low-end hounds will be chasing it straightaway.
Rambus is the anointed Intel choice for fast memory architecture and the company is putting its money where its mouth is, not prepared to risk IBM's and others' alternative proposals stymieing its revenue plans.
Other manufacturers are looking a little closer term for answers and are settling around the PC133 spec as a smoother transition to Direct DRam in light of the prospect of a short term Rambus Ram drought.
Intel isn't afraid to approach cash-strapped DRam makers, even if it means giving aid and comfort to the competition in other areas. 'The product testing requirement is entirely different than in current memory production, so significant investment is required to assure a flow of high quality parts,' explains Adrian Elms, senior sales manager for northern Europe at Samsung Semiconductors.
Samsung has begun branding semiconductors for the retail market, a move first made by Intel with massive TV and print media advertising spends.
However, Samsung has the advantage of already having a consumer-aware brand, he says.
The Samsung branded memory packages are just about to start hitting the market. Intel is the only other vendor that does this. Samsung has 20 per cent of the worldwide memory market share and is installed unbadged and unbranded in tier one vendor PC products, such as IBM, Compaq, and Gateway. But selling chips over the counter is a different game.
'Shifting memory will be a doddle compared to the long hard road that Intel has had with its OverDrive upgrades,' Elms says. 'It is a very different process to sell memory that has a lower unit cost and better return on investment than a CPU upgrade into a retail channel,' he adds.
'Intel recognises this and we get along with it reasonably well - it wouldn't have invested $100 million if there was any bad feeling. It has prepared the ground by educating users that PCs can be upgraded. We may compete for some of the same consumer technology spend, but there is no rancour and a lot of mutual support and co-operation.'
Intel means chips or networking or even video hardware to most folks that know what's 'inside'. But Intel has also, by necessity, managed to become a very large software company. It seems Intel was even trying to extend that line of business more when it ran into the Microsoft brick wall.
Microsoft's anti-trust ordeal in Washington shed a bright light on Intel's software business as Steven McGeady, vice president of Intel, alleged that Microsoft pressured the chip giant to drop its software plans. At the trial, he claimed: '(Microsoft chief executive) Bill Gates was very upset we were making software of any sort ... he became quite enraged.'
McGeady led the development of the doomed Intel Native Signal Processing software. He testified that Gates had 'made it very clear that Microsoft would not support our next processor product' if Intel went its own way on software.
Amazingly, McGeady painted the picture that Microsoft viewed Intel as a rival. 'Microsoft's desire was for us to get approval for our software programs before proceeding with them,' he alleged.
Gates gave a videotape deposition of his assessment of Intel's software efforts that reinforced McGeady's view: 'We thought the quality of its work was very low, as well as not working with any of our new Windows 95 work. We may have suggested at some point that the net contribution of Intel's software activities could even be viewed as a negative.'
He put the boot in with: 'Intel was wasting its money by writing low-quality software that created incompatibilities for users and those negative experiences weren't helpful for any goal that Intel had.'
This hardly sounds like the supportive words one expects from a close business partner. The sceptical gaze of Microsoft evidently regards even its closest business associates with suspicion.
A quick look around Intel's Website shows a veritable treasure trove of software - lots of drivers for various Intel bits and bobs of course, but also quite a few standalone applications and even some Web toys.
The chip manufacturer not only supports its products with software but is also very keen to get applications and utilities out to show off its processing prowess in the best possible light.
There's the usual collection of wallpapers, screensavers and small utilities, but developments such as the Intel Mediadome reveal considerable software efforts, including network management, 3D games, video and video cam toys.
And it's not just freebie software - Intel is also selling Intel Showcase and other third-party software off its Website.
Intel's recent interest in Java development and proliferation is bound to cause some consternation in Redmond. However, one recent investment has caught more than its fair share of attention.
The chip manufacturer, along with Netscape and others, invested in Redhat Software, a Linux developer and reseller - the self-same Linux that Microsoft's Halloween Memos Pt 1 and 2 singled out as Microsoft NT's enemy number one. Add this to the investment in RealNetworks, as well as its activity on the Java front, and Intel's latest software efforts seem to be taking on a new aggressive thrust.
Intel remains focused on its hardware business but that strategy cannot exist in a software vacuum. When the market is slow to provide - or appreciate - the stuff that makes its products look good, Intel is ready to step in and the manufacturer is active on any number of fronts that look at the future requirements of home and professional computing products.
So like it or not, Mr Gates, Intel is set to retain a large software component of its business for the foreseeable future, which could become an important revenue leg for Intel's business, as well as a key differentiator with other processor manufacturers.
CHIPS OFF THE OLD BLOCK
Last month was a busy month for chip manufacturers with both Intel and AMD racing to release their next generation of processor technology.
AMD was first off the blocks with the launch of the K6-III and is currently shipping the 400MHz variety with OEMs sampling the 450MHz. The chip maker hopes to have an installed base of 14 million 'AMD-enabled' users by the end of the month.
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