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Is the worst over for AMD?

AMD's desktop and server processor business has been in the dumps but that doesn't mean it will stay there forever.

AMD's processor business has been in the dumps for well over a year. But a resumption of quad-core shipments and a reduction in its workforce, though painful, may signal a turnaround.

AMD quad-core Opteron finally on its way to computer makers
AMD quad-core Opteron finally on its way to computer makers AMD

Before we get to the good news, let's first consider a draconian scenario for Advanced Micro Devices. As the chipmaker was announcing Monday that it would lay off 1,650 employees later this year, the stock was hovering just above $6, down from the mid-$20s a year ago and about $40 two years ago. If things do not improve, the company may split in two, according to Ashok Kumar, an analyst at CRT Capital Group.

Kumar sees one scenario in which AMD bifurcates into a manufacturing concern and a design company. If earnings don't trend up by the second half, this is a real possibility according to Kumar. "They don't have too many options with the debt overhang (from the ATI acquisition)," he said. The soft economy may not help matters either.

Kumar listed the well-known reasons for AMD's profit shortfalls: Lack of competitive offerings, blended ASPs (average selling prices) well below Intel's, and the delayed ramp of the high-end quad-core Opteron.

But these negatives--so the upbeat narrative on AMD goes--are the chipmaker's past, not its future. After a very long delay (about one year), AMD's quad-core Barcelona for servers is just about set to ship to the largest computer companies in the world: IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems, and Dell, among others. "Barcelona ASPs are 300 (dollars) plus. That historically has been the profit pool of the company," Kumar said. Once AMD ramps Barcelona and the desktop quad-core Phenom, things should "dramatically improve," he said.

And AMD's mobile offerings are getting better too. "They were probably at their weakest point in 2007," said Dean McCarron, founder and principal of Mercury Research. "The next design cycle for notebooks is happening right now. You can safely say that they are more competitive than they were last year" vis-a-vis Nvidia, he said.

Along these lines, AMD is slated to bring out the "Puma" mobile platform this quarter. Puma is based on the RS780M chipset and AMD's dual-core Griffin processor--now called the Turion Ultra. The new Turion is all about power consumption (to reduce power, each core can run at different frequencies) while the RS780M, AMD claims, is up to five times faster than Intel's current X3100 integrated graphics silicon.

Partnerships may also be helping AMD in the mobile market. "They've been partnering with some of the most aggressive OEMs out there. That plays to their favor," said Jim McGregor, an analyst at In-Stat. "Companies like Acer and Toshiba have been extremely aggressive worldwide, especially in North America, at gaining market share," he said.

The desktop is looking better too, with the triple-core and quad-core Phenom processors just beginning to ship in volume.

All this optimism is cautious, of course. "The competitive environment that they're in now is a little bit different than the one that they were in before. Intel is much stronger," said McCarron. "We have Nehalem (the next-generation Intel microarchitecture) coming at the tail end of the year and the Penryn products are very competitive," he added.

AMD also said Monday that it expects to post first-quarter revenue of $1.5 billion, about 15 percent lower than the fourth quarter. This is well below seasonal declines. So upcoming earnings could be ugly in some respects. "Plus the pullback in consumer and business spending. Q2 tends to be a little bit low in terms of revenues," McGregor warned, referring to factors that affect both Intel and AMD. "They're facing a little bit of headwind in terms of economic and spending conditions."

And all of the positives cited above may happen slowly for AMD. "Things don't swing overnight. They take time," McGregor said.