The big division in the chip-making industry over the past 15-20 years has been between giant vertically integrated makers like INTC, Texas Instruments … which manufacture chips designed in-house and smaller digitally-oriented design firms who rent structural intellectual property from ARMH, modify it and have chips made in third-party contract fabrication factories like those run by TSMC.
INTC’s advantages have been the raw power of its chips and its manufacturing superiority. Users of the ARMH framework tout the elegance of their designs that enables output to be smaller, use less electricity and generate less heat.
disruption by iPhone
The balance of power began to shift away from INTC and toward the ARMH camp when INTC decided not to make chips for the iPhone. It may be that INTC management thought smartphones were a flash in the pan, as urban legend has it, or it may simply have been that INTC knew its chips ran too hot and used too much power for Apple to be satisfied with them. In any event, INTC has been trying to reinvent itself since then, by improving its chip design while maintaining its manufacturing edge.
On the latter front, INTC continues do well; on the former, not so much. Despite a lot of design effort, its low-power, low-heat solutions for the smartphone world haven’t been good enough to gain much traction.
This itself threatens the manufacturing operation. As INTC steadily shrinks the size of its chips, each silicon wafer processed becomes capable of yielding more output. At some point, INTC’s factories are potentially going to be capable of churning out more chips than the company can reasonably expect to sell to its PC and server customers. The capital equipment used in chip making is so expensive–$3 billion+ today, maybe $10 billion+ for the fabs of a few years from now–that the factories have to run at high utilization rates to be profitable. INTC has already said that next-generation (extreme ultraviolet lithography) technology is too expensive for even INTC to invest in by itself.
Hence the deal with ARMH.
three other points:
–presumably working with ARMH-based firms will help INTC fine-tune its manufacturing processes for mobile and the Internet of Things
–this may be the first step in closer cooperation between the two companies
–the arrangement has been announced very quickly after Softbank agreed to acquire ARMH. Are the two connected? If so, Masayoshi Son may have plans for much greater integration of the two rival firms.
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