2020 was an annus horribilis for Intel in terms of the Silicon Valley mainstay’s fading technology leadership, but its prospects for 2021 and beyond suddenly look brighter.
Last July, it was overtaken by Nvidia as the most valuable chip company in the US and its rival went on to buy Arm, designer of the chip architecture that most threatened Intel’s business. Its manufacturing prowess then suffered a huge dent when it revealed it was struggling to reduce circuit widths on its chips to 7 billionths of a metre, when Taiwanese foundry TSMC had already surpassed this next level of miniaturisation, moving on to the 5 nanometre node.
It received a kick in the teeth in November when Apple unveiled an Arm-based processor that would replace Intel’s in Macs and showed it could considerably outperform Windows PCs and laptops running on Intel chips. To add insult to injury, in December, the activist hedge fund Third Point took a stake and told Intel it was no longer “the gold standard” and should look at shedding its core manufacturing operations.
Today, Third Point welcomed the news that chief executive Bob Swan would step aside next month after holding the top job for just over two years. He will be replaced by Pat Gelsinger, CEO of VMware, on February 15.
His successor is an outside hire with Intel inside. Mentored by Intel’s legendary leader Andy Grove, Mr Gelsinger had earlier risen to be chief technology officer in a 30-year career at the chipmaker. “Having begun my career at Intel and learned at the feet of Grove, Noyce and Moore, it’s my privilege and honour to return in this leadership capacity,” he said in a statement.
An Intel-wired brain is needed to restore the company’s fortunes, but there are already encouraging signs. The company previewed its 11th-generation processors at CES 2021 this week, including a Core i9 offering due in the first quarter. Figures out on Thursday should confirm Intel is still the world’s biggest chipmaker by revenues and the company said today it had “made strong progress on its 7nm process technology”. It would give more details next week in an earnings report that should show strong demand for semiconductors. Third Point has been placated for now and Intel shares are up 7.5 per cent today.
Yet Korea and Taiwan now lead on manufacturing in the shape of Samsung and TSMC, Japan has the world’s fastest supercomputer, running on Arm-based chips, and China continues to prioritise building up its semiconductor industry. Intel needs Mr Gelsinger to improve the competitiveness of its technology, but so does the US.
The Internet of (Five) Things
1. YouTube bans Trump, Airbnb bans DC stays
YouTube has become the latest service to suspend President Trump’s account over fears he could incite further unrest ahead of Joe Biden’s inauguration in a week’s time. Airbnb is cancelling all bookings in the Washington area. Emily Bell says the incoming administration should borrow from Europe in enacting laws and frameworks to counter disinformation. Politicians are increasingly hiring private companies to spread disinformation online, according to researchers.
2. WhatsApp exodus follows T&Cs changes
Facebook is scrambling to deal with a sudden competitive threat to its messaging platform WhatsApp after a change to its terms of service sparked privacy concerns and prompted users to turn to rivals such as Signal and Telegram in droves. Our Brussels Briefing newsletter says antitrust and privacy concerns about Big Tech will dominate in 2021.
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3. Affirm’s investor affirmation, Visa blow, Walmart move
Affirm, the consumer lender led by PayPal co-founder Max Levchin, surged more than 80 per cent after its public debut on Wednesday. Its shares opened above $90, making the company worth nearly $22bn. Visa has called off its deal to buy fintech start-up Plaid for $5.3bn after the US Department of Justice sued to block the transaction on competition grounds. Meanwhile, Walmart is partnering with a VC firm to create a fintech start-up.
4. Just Eat’s ‘all or nothing’ move
Just Eat Takeaway.com is going to war in London with its UK rivals Deliveroo and Uber Eats, as the Amsterdam-headquartered food delivery group increases investment in its own courier network. Jitse Groen, chief executive, said: “It’s either all or it is nothing and we are going to go for all in the UK.” Private equity group Advent is planning to list InPost, its Polish parcel locker business, on the Amsterdam stock exchange, in a move designed to cash in on the surge in online shopping. The freight business of Didi Chuxing, China’s most popular ride-hailing app, may tap investors for additional capital after its debut fundraising drew about $3bn in bids
5. Honda plant’s semi shutdown
Honda’s Swindon plant will close for four days next week as the UK vehicle manufacturing site becomes the latest to be hit by the global shortage of chips. The lack of semiconductors has affected carmakers across the world with Volkswagen, Nissan and General Motors all tapering production. This week’s #techAsia newsletter says China’s Huawei is boosting investment in domestic chip companies to plug holes in its semi supply chain.
Tech tools — Asus Zenbook Pro Duo 15
Asus has just unveiled a new version of its unusual dual-screen laptop at CES. The ZenBook Pro Duo 15 OLED has a 15.6in 4K OLED screen plus ScreenPad Plus, a full-width 4K secondary touchscreen that tilts below it for touch-enabled multitasking. It will have the latest Intel® Core™ i9 processor and NVIDIA® GeForce RTX™ 3070 laptop GPU graphics. Asus says a new auto-tilt mechanism “automatically raises the rear of the secondary display by 9.5 degrees for improved readability and to reduce potential glare”. Cnet says it should be available in April, but pricing has not been announced.