Friday, 28 March 2008

Making chipsets interesting

At the risk of offending all those who love to talk for hours about cores, caches and clock speeds, I have to say that I personally find discussions about the innards of silicon chips and how they are wired together intensely boring. In fact, I’ve probably already used all the wrong words and phrases, even in that first sentence, which is no doubt going to annoy some people further.

So, when Tony, Martin and I were invited to a dinner to meet with some of AMD’s European executives, I was understandably in two minds about attending, especially as I am also not really into all this wining and dining stuff as some other analyst are.

I went along, though, and I’m glad I did. Sure, I found myself sucked into the odd eye glazing conversation that I only partially understood, but something that came across clearly was that AMD is investing quite a bit in ‘reaching through’ relationships with its direct customers (largely the OEMs) to the ultimate customers – Enterprises, SMBs and consumers.

Of course there is nothing new or unique in this, in fact I ran a team at Nortel Networks back in the early 00’s which did exactly the same thing (in that case, reaching through the mobile operators to understand how 3G related to their subscribers). The basic idea is that you can gain insights and tune your R&D based on direct end user/buyer input that would not be possible if you worked second hand through your customer as an intermediary. To do this well, however, you really need people who understand that end user environment and the trends that are taking place within it, and that’s not necessarily the same people that deal with your core product design from an internal perspective.

Anyway, this end-user oriented view of the world shifted discussions to more familiar territory for me during the dinner, and I enjoyed hearing people like Giuseppe Amato, who goes under the title “Director, Value Proposition Team”, explaining how the whole process works in relation to data centre evolution, high performance computing and mobile working. It changed my perception of AMD quite a bit from simply “the alternative to Intel” to that of an independent player that is committed to driving industry development in its own way.

While I am not qualified to comment on the relative merits of AMD technology versus the competition, nor its ability to execute in the cut throat world of OEM deals and supply chains, I now have a much better appreciation of why what AMD does actually matters. It is not just about price/performance or performance per watt of energy consumed, it is about shifting thresholds to make things economically or practically possible in the mainstream market that previously were not. That’s why the “what if you could....?” conversations with end customers as suppliers like AMD reach through to them are so important. And also why, for the first time in my life, I actually had some genuinely interesting conversations about silicon that were directly relevant to the world in which I live.