Intel vs. AMD gets interesting again

May 12, 2010: 3:07 PM ET

AMD CEO Dirk Meyer. Photo: AMD.

Left for dead, AMD is showing why it can never be counted out.

When I sat down with AMD CEO Dirk Meyer a few weeks ago to talk about how he planned to invigorate the wayward chipmaker, Intel barely came up.

Now it's clear why. Rather than focus on his perennial rival, Meyer has been whipping his own company into shape. The results so far look promising: AMD (AMD) is poised to have one of its most fruitful back-to-school seasons ever, with its new line of Turion chips appearing in a wide range of consumer and business laptops from Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), Dell (DELL), Acer and Lenovo. In fact, by AMD's count, about 109 PC models will run on its chips this season, nearly three times last year's count.

Indeed, after missteps almost buried the company, AMD is quietly reemerging as a threat to Intel on the PC.

It's far too early to call this a comeback. Intel still has 80% of the PC market, and a few good months for AMD won't move the needle much; as Stifel Nicolaus analyst Patrick Ho put it in a recent note, "this is a turnaround story that needs to show some consistency." But there are signs that sharper management, better products, and a more receptive customer base are beginning to pay off for the underdog chipmaker.

If AMD has indeed turned a corner, much of the credit will go to Meyer, an understated engineer who took the reins two years ago. Until he arrived, AMD's fight with Intel had begun to take on near-religious overtones (see Apple (AAPL) vs. Microsoft (MSFT) in the 1990s); former CEO Hector Ruiz rarely missed an opportunity to call out Intel's alleged wrongdoings.

Meyer has taken a subtler approach. He began talking more diplomatically about Intel (INTC), and opened up conversations with the company. Then late last year, he made a move that would have been almost unthinkable under previous leadership: He settled AMD's antitrust complaints with Intel, to the tune of $1.25 billion.

The settlement rolled back AMD's status as head anti-Intel cheerleader in the courts. But from Meyer's perspective, it also brought several benefits: The settlement removed a costly distraction for AMD management, and supplied the hefty cash payment from Intel, which Meyer could immediately use to settle AMD debts.

It also gave PC makers a reason to consider using more of his chips, since Intel pledged not to punish customers who also bought from AMD. (Intel said it never did that in the first place.) "We never expected an instantaneous night-and-day change. There's a mindset amongst OEMs that's formed over 20 years," Meyer told me. "But I'm hopeful that with every quarter that goes by, we'll see opportunities that we used to not see."

Judging by the reception PC makers are giving AMD's latest chips, things are coming together. HP told reporters that AMD's advances in battery life made the chips good enough to include in more laptops. During a recent meeting with Acer, I was shocked at the number of AMD-based models the Taiwanese PC maker is rolling out this month. It's going from a netbook lineup that was Intel-only to one with two AMD-based machines and three Intel; not quite parity, but close.

Even so, Intel doesn't have to worry much. Industry analysts generally agree that AMD's current chip lineup and manufacturing capabilities are not as strong as Intel's; Intel leads in battery life and raw performance, which allows it to charge a premium for its chips. Plus, Meyer still hasn't yet proven to AMD investors that he can consistently deliver profits. It's not enough that PC makers are designing more products with AMD chips; Meyer still has to sell those wares at healthy margins, and the consumers have to buy them.

But this is a start. If AMD gains some lasting market share, that will position the company for next year's launch of Fusion – an entirely new chip design that with built-in graphics smarts that Meyer hopes will deliver a real advantage over what Intel offers. If he does that, success should finally show on AMD's bottom line – and in its stock price.

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