Intel on lookout for next big thing

Intel Developer Forum this week will zero in on upcoming chips. Areas for longer-term growth aren't quite so clear.

Intel is expected to shed light this week on its next generation of chips.

The chipmaker's premier event of the year, the Intel Developer Forum, is expected to draw several thousand hardware developers, Intel partners and media types to the Moscone Center in San Francisco Tuesday through Thursday. Intel usually holds two IDFs in San Francisco annually, but moved the spring event to Beijing this year to highlight the company's growing China operation and cut the costs of holding two major U.S. events.

CEO Paul Otellini will get things going Tuesday morning, and he's expected to preview Intel's upcoming Penryn generation of processors, which will use a new, smaller 45-nanometer manufacturing technology (due later this year). Later in the week, other Intel executives are expected to highlight the company's growing interest in low-power mobile and consumer electronics devices that could help Intel cope with a rapidly maturing PC market.

The title of the One True Mobile Device is still very much up for grabs, and Intel is highly interested in making sure it's inside whatever device winds up winning that contest.

Intel is on a roll this year, following a dismal period in which the company lost significant market share and design credibility to AMD. AMD's Opteron chip was the processor of choice in the server market right up until the middle of last year, when Intel introduced dual-core chips based on a new design and then combined those chips in a package to make quad-core processors. Those quad-core chips, combined with an unrelenting price war, have had AMD on the defensive for much of 2007.

Barcelona, AMD's quad-core processor launched last week, will help the smaller chipmaker regain some momentum, but it's not the knockout blow AMD wanted to land when it started developing Barcelona. Intel hopes to regain a decisive lead with the Penryn processors, which are expected to arrive by Thanksgiving.

So, expect to hear a lot of information about the Penryn chips, such as specifications, power consumption and benchmark projections. Intel will also likely tout its manufacturing prowess in getting to the 45-nanometer level well before AMD is expected to do so in mid-2008. The smaller manufacturing technology makes it possible to cram more transistors onto each chip and also allows Intel to cut more chips from each 300-milimeter silicon wafer it produces, which lowers the overall cost for making each chip and makes the accountants happy.

Moving in new directions
But while Intel is naturally very concerned with shoring up its position in its core business, it's also trying find the next big source of growth for the company, which is taking it in some directions outside of its historical expertise.

Intel has been desperately trying this entire decade to find a sustainable business outside of the PC market. PC shipments are still growing at a relatively steady pace, especially in markets outside the U.S. and Western Europe, but they aren't growing at a pace that makes Wall Street giddy. Intel spent much of the early part of the decade talking about the pending convergence of communications and computing, but the company isn't really participating in that convergence outside of its core PC business.

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