Intel is a technology explorer, not a foundry
5/1/2012 12:21 PM EDT
Intel will not become the next big foundry. As advertised, it will remain a technology explorer content to disrupt the fabless/foundry ecosystem that supports such competitors as Qualcomm, Broadcom and others.
Intel CEO Paul Otellini has said Intel fabricates wafers for others as a way of checking out technologies that may be relevant to Intel in the future. Otellini specifically mentioned fast processor variation. The best way to learn about these technologies, he added, is to find partners who want to make them. As a result, Intel gets paid to learn if these technologies will fly or whether they required modifications.
Intel's work with Lilliputian Systems on fuel cells has implications for ultrabooks and smartphones. FPGA fabric for processors fits this bill as does novel memory technologies, 2.5-D and 3-D IC assembly.
At the same time, supplying just a few wafers to the likes of Achronix, Tabula and Netronome can be very disruptive to the established fabless/foundry ecosystem. This will be the first time a rival FPGA vendor can make Xilinx, Altera, Lattice feel the pain of being one or two process nodes behind in terms of power and performance. Similarly, Intel partners Netronome may be able to give other fabless network processor vendors like Broadcom and Cavium a run for their money.
ARM CEO Warren East acknowledges that Intel retains a manufacturing advantage but argues that the battle for ARM partners is about the relative merits of manufacturing and design. East argues that its Cortex-on-28-nm technology is superior to Atom-on-22 nm. But in other sectors, such as networking and FPGAs, it's unclear that there is sufficient design superiority to make up for the manufacturing benefit Intel provides. That may hurt pure-play foundries, but that does not mean Intel wants to be one.
That said, Otellini has openly discussed the possibility of taking on foundry business for Apple or Qualcomm. Under present circumstances, that would promote the ARM architecture in mobile at the expense of Intel's aspirations for Atom. That's because Intel wants its Atom-based processors to gain traction in the mobile market to replicate its past success in PCs, but most smartphones and tablets are based on ARM designs.
If either Qualcomm or Apple is prepared to design around the Atom processor core, that would be disruptive. On the other hand, such a move would put Intel in competition with its new foundry customers.
There is one other point to bear in mind: It's no longer your father's foundry business.
The days when foundries just churned out CMOS wafers with little knowledge about the underlying designs are long gone. IDMs and foundries both must be collaborative technology explorers in order to prosper.
Indeed, pure-play foundries likes of TSMC, Globalfoundries and United Microelectronics Corp. may instead be forced to become more like Intel and Samsung, finding new ways to accelerate their process R&D so that they can catch up with Intel. Failure to adapt may mean being relegated to work behind the leading-edge on "more-than-Moore" designs.