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Atom chip demand redefining Intel

Chipmaker is seeing solid Atom results, possibly giving the first evidence of Intel's low-cost future.

Intel is seeing solid results for the Atom processor--possibly giving the first significant evidence of Intel's likely future as a bigger provider of low-cost processors.

Intel confirmed on Tuesday that Atom is hot. CEO Paul Otellini said that Intel didn't meet demand in the third quarter and still can't meet demand. "We did not meed demand in Q3 for the product. We are up again substantially in the fourth quarter. Our expectation is that we will meet demand by the end of the year," Otellini said.

And many of the questions from analysts in Tuesday's earnings conference call revolved around Atom as it delivered $200 million in revenue to Intel in the quarter. "Between the microprocessor and the chipset, we did have a couple hundred million dollars of revenue from Atom in the third quarter," Chief Financial Officer Stacy Smith said. "We do expect that to grow rapidly in the fourth quarter."

What Intel appears to like most about Atom is what it calls "margin characteristics." In other words, it's a low-cost processor, but it yields better margins than typical inexpensive chips like the Celeron. "What we've seen in the third quarter is a very healthy product margin," Smith said.

"On a dollar basis it's equivalent to what we see in Celeron and on a product margin percent it's higher. So if you look at it relative to our low-end mainstream stack, it's generating nice product characteristics," Smith added.

Here's the question: if more and more consumers--particularly in places like China and India--opt for Netbooks with the Atom processor rather than traditional notebooks with standard Intel mobile processors, what kind of an impact will this have on Intel's profits?

Intel claims cannibalization of (higher-margin) mainstream mobile processors is not taking place. "To date we haven't seen any evidence of cannibalization. And believe me we're looking. It's something we watch very carefully," Otellini said. "And one of the best pieces of evidence that we have is the strength in the core mobile business independent of Atom," he added.

But tighter consumer budgets worldwide could push more people toward Netbooks. A Gartner report came out Tuesday that said third-quarter PC shipment growth was driven by sales of sub-$500 notebooks. Netbooks typically sell for less than $500.

Other notable comments in the earnings conference call:
• Inventories: Taiwan and channel customers cutting back, consumer traffic overall is light--Otellini
• Intel-Micron: Joint Singapore flash memory chip fab now on hold
• Corporate segment: In Q4, corporations to show softness as IT gets rationalized in macro environment
• Nehalem processor: Intel started shipping Nehalem processor, announcement coming in November