By Chris A. Ciufo, Editor, Embedded Intel Solutions
5 bullets explain Intel’s recent drastic course correction.
I recently opined on the amazing technology gifts Intel has given the embedded industry as the company approaches its 50th anniversary. Yet a few weeks later, the company released downward financials and announced layoffs, restructurings, executive changes and new strategies. Here are five key points from the recent news-storm of (mostly) negative coverage.
Within days of the poor financial news, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich (“BK”) announced that 12,000 loyal employees would have to go. As the event unfolded over a few days, the pain was felt throughout Intel: from the Oregon facility where its IoT Intelligent Gateway strategy resides, to its design facilities in Israel and Ireland, to older fabs in places like New Mexico. Friends of mine at Intel have either been let go or are afraid for their jobs. This is the part about tech—and it’s not limited to Intel, mind you—that I hate the most. Sometimes it feels like a sweatshop where workers are treated poorly. (Check out the recent story concerning BiTMICRO Networks, which really did treat its workers poorly.)
2. Atom family: on its way out.
This story broke late on the Friday night after the financial news—it was almost as if the company hadn’t planned on talking about it so quickly. But the bottom line is that the Atom never achieved all the goals Intel set out for it: lower price, lower power and a spot in handheld. Of course, much is written about Intel’s failure to wrest more than a token slice out of ARM’s hegemony in mobile. (BTW: that term “hegemony” used to be applied to Intel’s dominance in PCs. Sigh.) Details are still scant, but the current Atom Bay Trail architecture works very nicely, and I love my Atom-based Win8.1 Asus 2:1 with it. But the next Atom iteration (Apollo Lake) looks like the end of the line. Versions of Atom may live on under other names like Celeron and Pentium (though some of these may also be Haswell or Skylake versions).
3. New pillars announced.
Intel used to use the term “pillars” for its technology areas, and BK has gone to great lengths to list the new ones as: Data Center (aka: Xeon); Memory (aka: Flash SSDs and the Optane, 3D XPoint Intel/Micro joint venture); FPGAs (aka: Altera, eventually applied to Xeon co-accelerators); IoT (aka: what Intel used to call embedded); and 5G (a modem technology the company doesn’t really have yet). Mash-ups of these pillars include some of the use cases Intel is showing off today, such as wearables, medical, drones (apparently a personal favorite of BK), RealSense camera, and smart automobiles including self-driving cars. (Disclosure: I contracted to Intel in 2013 pertaining to the automotive market.)
4. Tick-tock goodbye.
For many years, Intel has set the benchmark for process technology and made damn sure Moore’s Law was followed. The company’s cadence of new architecture (Tock) followed by process shrink (Tick) predictably streamed products that found their way into PCs, laptops, the data center (now “cloud” and soon “fog”). But as Intel approached 22nm, it got harder and harder to keep up the pace as CMOS channel dimensions approached Angstroms (inter-atomic distances). The company has now officially retired Tick-Tock in favor of a three-step process of Architecture, Process, and Process tuning. This is in fact where the company is today as the Core series evolved from 4th-gen (Haswell) to 5th-gen (Broadwell—a sort-of interim step) to the recent 6th-gen (Skylake). Skylake is officially a “Tock,” but if you work backwards, it’s kind of a fine-tuned process improvement with new features such as really good graphics, although AnandTech and others lauded Broadwell’s graphics. The next product—Kaby Lake (just “leaked” last week, go figure)—looks to be another process tweak. Now-public specs point to even better graphics, if the data can be believed.
5. Embedded, MCUs, and Value-Add.
This last bullet is my prediction of how Intel is going to climb back out of the rut. Over the years the company mimicked AMD and nearly singularly focused on selling x86 CPUs and variants (though it worked tirelessly on software like PCIe, WiDi, Android, USB Type-C and much more). It jettisoned value-add MCUs like the then-popular 80196 16-bitter with A/D and 8751EPROM-based MCU—conceding all of these products to companies like Renesas (Hitachi), Microchip (PIC series), and Freescale (ARM and Power-based MCUs, originally for automotive). Yet Intel can combine scads of its technology—including modems, WiFi (think: Centrino), PCIe, and USB)—into intelligent peripherals for IoT end nodes. Moreover, the company’s software arsenal even beats IBM (I’ll wager) and Intel can apply the x86 code base and tool set to dozens of new products. Or, they could just buy Microchip or Renesas or Cypress.
It pains me to see Intel layoff people, retrench, and appear to fumble around. I actually do think it is shot-gunning things just a bit right now, and officially giving up on developing low-power products for smartphones. Yet they’ll need low power for IoT nodes, too, and I don’t know that Quark and Curie are going to cut it. Still: I have faith. BK is hell-fire-brimstone motivated, and the company is anything but stupid. Time to pick a few paths and stay the course.