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Intel's next-gen CEO must get inside next-gen devices

Brad Chacos | May 6, 2013
With Brian Krzanich and his manufacturing prowess at the helm of Chipzilla, expect it to keep trying to out-engineer the competition.

Also expect Intel to push its Perceptual Computing concept, which aims to bring nontraditional input methods such as voice controls, gesture recognition, and face reading to the mainstream. (Touchscreens fall under the Perceptual Computing umbrella, too.) Intel demoed a software developer kit for the long-promised initiative at Mobile World Conference in February.

Not only are Perceptual Computing technologies sexy and innovative, but they're also CPU-intensive. Oh, Intel--you're so clever.

Coffee and Google Glass, anyone?

Moorhead expects Intel to delve into the booming "Internet of Things," creating processors designed to run Fitbits and app-powered fridges and their ilk. Connected devices don't need much oomph, but they do need basic chips, and nobody does chips better than Intel.

"With this whole 'Internet of Things,' where processors are in literally everything from your clothing to your glasses to your TV and your coffee maker, what processor is Intel going to bring to the table for that? Atom is 1 watt in a smartphone, but Internet of Things processors are a tenth of a watt," Moorhead says. "Going a few process nodes down isn't going to get you there."

Krzanich's background surely predisposes him to tackle engineering problems like the design and mass manufacturing of this new breed of processor. If Intel solves its power-efficiency conundrums--and it's on the right track, thanks to its mobile ambitions--the company's beastly fabs could be a perfect spawning ground for legions of simple IoT chips.

Pumping out millions of simple chips probably isn't a priority for Intel, but the Internet of Things is definitely on the company's radar.

Engineers for hire

Watch for an expansion of Intel's custom chip business, which uses Intel's fabs to build unique processors for other companies. Intel has already signed up to make custom chips for Altera, Microsemi, and Tabula; and with Intel's vaunted fabs reportedly running below capacity during the recent PC downturn, some observers expect Krzanich to take Intel more fully into the ronin route.

Hey, AMD is doing it. Why not Intel? Full speed ahead!

Slow your horses. Yes, fabs need to be running to make money--and yes, Krzanich has a strong engineering background. But manufacturing prowess is at the heart of Intel's power. It makes sense for the company to take on some custom chip jobs, but Intel shouldn't necessarily rush to fill their fabs with other people's work.

"Intel's first preference is to always fill the fabs with their own products," says Moorhead. "Doing so, they're basically double-dipping compared to something like TSMC, where TSMC makes the manufacturing margins and Qualcomm makes the design margins. In-house, Intel captures both of those."

Intel still needs to manufacture hundreds of millions of processors to meet the demand for basic PCs and laptops, even in these glum times. And if Intel ever (hopefully, eventually) becomes competitive in the mobile market--much less the Internet of Things market--it will need big volumes there, too. Big volumes mean full fabs.


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