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Monday, May 6, 2013

Intel’s Impressive Design Meets a Tricky Market

Intel formally introduced on Monday a new semiconductor architecture for its Atom chip, with all sorts of advanced features and technology that the company says will give it an edge in the operation of computer servers, lightweight personal computers, tablets, phones, cars and perhaps a whole lot of other things.

There was another issue, however, that Intel failed to discuss: this complexity of a marketplace with many different products and outlets, and faster-changing consumer tastes. It’s an open question how well the company, the world’s largest semiconductor maker, will fare in this environment.

For now, at least, Intel gets big points for mastering the complexities of silicon. The new architecture, Silvermont, uses wires just 22 nanometers across, or one four-thousandth the width of a human hair. Intel claims Silvermont can get three times the performance on one-fifth the power.

“Every few years we have a key re-architecture,” said David Perlmutter, Intel’s chief product officer, who is known as Dadi. “You’ll see based on Silvermont a large variety of products.”

The architecture, which was talked about as far back as last January’s Consumer Electronics Show, is aimed at a chip called Bay Trail, for mobile devices like tablets; a Merrifield chip, for phones; Avaton, a supposedly more energy-efficient way of powering micro-servers; and Rangely, for network and communication infrastructure. An as-yet-unnamed variety of chip will be aimed at things like in-car videos.

Each of these versions comes with features like encryption, media support and security. In effect, each chip performs many of the functions that used to be associated with other aspects of computing, a so-called system on a chip approach that saves space, but adds complexity.

“Everything is a system on a chip, as far as we’re concerned,” Mr. Perlmutter said.

Another 22-nanometer architecture, called Haswell, is aimed at PCs, hybrid tablet notebooks and other mobile devices. The Xeon chip, aimed at big computers in a data center, will also take on 22-nanometer technology. As if that weren’t enough, executives at a briefing for the introduction talked about uses of the Itanium chip and Xeon Phi, for data centers and high-performance computing.

A year from now Intel plans to produce a whole new version for 14-nanometer wires, called Airmont.

The company is clearly building for a faster-moving world of all kinds of computing outlets, attached to big clouds of various designs. This is a big departure from the PC/server dynamic around which Intel thrived for the last two decades. It would seem to carry higher costs, for everything from production to sales training. But Mr. Perlmutter said he did not think this was a big deal.

“The go to market is going to be different on each of these products,” he said, adding, “This isn’t going to be something that will affect our cost of operations. We know how to do this efficiently.”

If so, that will be an operational wonder to match anything Intel can make in its foundries. It’s critical, too: without high levels of profitability, Intel can’t keep building those high-end chip factories.