Gaming AMD’s 2012 Strategy

by Peter Kastner   |   November 30th, 2011

AMD intends to pursue “growth opportunities” in low-powered devices, emerging markets and Internet-based businesses.

There’s an awful lot of mis-guided analysis wafting about regarding AMD’s new strategic direction, which the company says it will make public in February. This piece is to help you (and me) sort through the facts and the opportunities. I last took a look at AMD’s strategies earlier this year, available here.

Starting With the Facts

  • AMD is a fabless semiconductor company since 2009. The company depends on GlobalFoundries and soon Taiwan Semiconductor to actually fabricate its chips;
  • In its latest quarter, AMD had net income of about $100 million on $1.7 billion in revenue. Subsequently, the company announced a restructuring that seeks to cut costs by $118 million in 2012, largely through a reduction in force of about ten percent;
  • AMD has about a 20% market share in the PC market, which Intel says is growing north of 20% this year, largely in emerging markets;
  • AMD’s products compete most successfully against rival Intel in the low- to mid-range PC categories, but 2011 PC processors have underwhelmed reviewers, especially in performance as compared to comparable Intel products;
  • AMD has less than a 10% market share in the server market of about 250,000 units, which grew 7.6% last quarter according to Gartner Group;
  • AMD’s graphics division competes with nVidia in the discrete graphics chip business, which is growing in profitable commercial applications like high-performance supercomputing and declining in the core PC business as Intel’s integrated graphics is now “good enough” for mainstream buyers;
  • AMD has no significant expertise in phone and tablet chip design, especially the multi-function “systems on a chip (SOCs)” that make up all of today’s hot sellers.

What Will AMD CEO Rory Read’s Strategy Be?

I have no insider information and no crystal ball. But my eyebrows were seriously raised this morning in perplexity to see several headlines such as “AMD to give up competing with Intel on X86“, which led to “AMD struggling to reinvent itself” in the hometown Mercury News. I will stipulate that AMD is indeed struggling to reinvent itself, as the public process has taken most of 2011. The board of directors itself seems unclear on direction. That said, here is my score card on reinvention opportunities in descending order of attractiveness:

  1. Servers –  For not much more work than a desktop high-end Bulldozer microprocessor, AMD makes Opteron 6100 server processors. Hundreds or thousands more revenue dollars per chip at correspondingly higher margins. AMD has a tiny market share, but keeps a foot in the door at the major server OEMs. The company has been late and underdelivered to its OEMs recently. But the problem is execution, not computer science.
  2. Desktop and Notebook PCs – AMD is in this market and the volumes are huge. AMD needs volume to amortize its R&D and fab preparation costs for each generation of products. Twenty percent of a 400 million chip 2011 market is 80 million units! While faster, more competitive chips would help gain market share from Intel, AMD has to execute profitably in the PC space to survive. I see no role for AMD that does not include PCs — unless we are talking about a much smaller, specialized AMD.
  3. Graphics Processors (GPUs) – ATI products are neck-and-neck with nVidia in the discrete graphics card space. But nVidia has done a great job of late creating a high-performance computing market that consumes tens of thousands of commercial-grade (e.g., high price) graphics cards. Intel is about to jump into the HPC space with Knight’s Corner, a many-X86-core chip. Meanwhile, AMD needs the graphics talent onboard to drive innovation in its Fusion processors that marry a processor and graphics on one chip. So, I don’t see an AMD without a graphics component, but neither do I see huge profit pools either.
  4. Getting Out of the X86 Business – If you’re reading along and thinking you might short AMD stock, this is the reason not to: the only legally sanctioned software-compatible competition to X86 inventor Intel. If AMD decides to get out of making X86 chips, it better have a sound strategy in mind and the ability to execute. But be assured that the investment bankers and hedge funds would be flailing elbows to buy the piece of AMD that allows them to mint, er, process X86 chips. So, I describe this option as “sell off the family jewels”, and am not enthralled with the prospects for success in using those funds to generate $6.8 billion in profitable revenue or better to replace today’s X86 business.
  5. Entering the ARM Smartphone and Tablet Market– A sure path to Chapter 11. Remember, AMD no longer makes the chips it designs, so it lacks any fab margin to use elsewhere in the business. It starts against well-experienced ARM processor designers including Apple, Qualcomm, Samsung, and TI … and even nVidia. Most ARM licensees take an off-the-shelf design from ARM that is tweaked and married to input-output to create an SOC design, that then competes for space at one of the handful of global fab companies. AMD has absolutely no special sauce to win in the ARM SOC kitchen.To win, AMD would have to execute flawlessly in its maiden start (see execution problems above), gain credibility, nail down 100+ design wins for its second generation, and outrace the largest and most experienced companies in the digital consumer products arena. Oh, and don’t forget volume, profitability, and especially cash flow. It can’t be done. Or if it can be done, the risks are at heart-attack levels.

“AMD intends to pursue “growth opportunities” in low-powered devices, emerging markets and Internet-based businesses.” One way to read that ambiguous sentence by AMD is a strategy that includes:

  • Tablets and netbooks running X86 Windows 8;
  • Emerging geographic markets, chasing Intel for the next billion Internet users in places like Brazil, China, and even Africa. Here, AMD’s traditional value play resonates;
  • Internet-based businesses such as lots of profitable servers in the cloud. Tier 4 datacenters for Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft are a small but off-the-charts growing market.

So, let’s get together in February and see how the strategy chips fall. Or post a comment on your game plan for AMD.

Peter Kastner

Peter Kastner’s primary research focus is on workgroup, departmental, mobile, and enterprise personal computing; and digital consumer products such as PCs. Kastner actively consults with enterprises on IT strategies, and with suppliers on executive-level market research and positioning, industry analysis, strategic planning development, product planning, and competitive strategies. He is an active private investor, and sits on the board of NextIO and TheDailyGlobe.
  • Wouter v. Dam

    Thank you for your insights. You’ve drawn up a nice list of facts, leading to a nice description of the problems AMD currently needs to deal with. My interest and knowledge is mostly limited to the low-powered devices.

    On this front AMD clearly missed the boat entirely by failing to participate in the netbook market. I recall they were among those who considered netbooks a hype. And they were right, netbooks were a hype, but not so the change in the consumer’s prioritization of performance characteristics that made the success of netbooks possible. Netbooks were the first stab at addressing this change, and everything from nettops to tablets aims to address this change that the netbook market made visible. AMD realized this too little too late and/or has thus far simply been unable to effectively respond.

    Personally I look at the efforts involving x86 in low-powered devices, and starting soon also at the bottom of the (home) computer market, as part of the sailing ship effect. Sometimes these efforts prove enough to cut off attempts to overtake the old, other times they don’t. Interesting times.

    What I expect will happen is that Apple soon enough (at least partially) switches to ARM processors for its computer segment, which may well trigger others to explore similar options – Samsung in particular. Or perhaps it will be Samsung that makes the first step, depending on the success of Windows 8 to run on ARM and satisfy consumer needs (I think Android is fundamentally still too much like Linux to become a strong mainstream platform at this point). When this move to ARM happens, not just Intel, but also AMD will face more trouble.