Intel’s Missed "Opportunity"

Last week CNET ran an article about the first IPAD – you know, the one made by Intel. Unfortunately, the introduction ruins the entire piece:

The iPad is universally known as one of the most coveted consumer electronics devices on the market. But have you heard of the IPAD?

That would be Intel’s botched attempt at building a tablet — which nearly came out roughly a decade before Apple unveiled its first iPad. The device, which was dubbed Intel Pad, or IPAD for short, could browse the Internet, play music and videos, and even act as a digital picture frame.

Unfortunately, the operative word is nearly, as the IPAD was scrapped before consumers could get their hands on it. It’s just one of many opportunities that Intel has missed out on, which CNET has chronicled here.

For Intel, forgoing an early run at tablets is one of the company’s biggest blunders — especially given how quickly the business has grown. Here’s what was, and what could have been.

The rest of the article is genuinely interesting, but the very premise of these last few sentences is emblematic of what so much of tech reporting and analysis gets wrong.

In short, it’s not that Intel missed on the opportunity to build a tablet. It’s that they never had a chance. The iPad – the Apple one – is successful for many more reasons than its form factor. The touch interface, the OS, the ecosystem, the industrial design, the retail stores, the brand among consumers – all of these played significant roles, and Intel had none of them. There was no opportunity missed, because there never was an opportunity at all.

In fact, one could easily argue Intel’s obsession with consumer-facing products (even proof-of-concept ones) has been actively detrimental to the company as a whole. Intel has been convinced for years now that they are more imaginative and creative than their customers, and while that may have been justified with Acer, HP and the like, it seems likely they had the same attitude towards Apple as well. They certainly couldn’t have imagined something like the iPhone when they sold XScale, their ARM processing unit, a mere 8 months before the iPhone was announced. From an old news piece I dug up on Google (italics mine):

Though you may have not heard much about the Intel XScale processor, it is very commonly used in mobile devices and formerly made Intel the largest supplier of processors for 3G devices and new-age smartphones. I say formerly, because Intel is now selling their entire XScale line for $600 Million to Marvell who are commonly known for making other chipsets for wireless and ethernet devices.

That is a missed opportunity (which former CEO Paul Otellini copped to on his way out the door). There are some encouraging signs, though, from new CEO Brian Krzanich. First and foremost was the decision to dump their TV ambitions. From Reuters:

The project faced daunting challenges from the start, and Intel’s new CEO, Brian Krzanich, ultimately decided the company could not afford the distraction and expense, sources familiar with the decision told Reuters.

At his first annual investor day on Thursday, Krzanich is expected to discuss the growing use of chips in everyday devices, plans to breath new life into PCs, and Intel’s growing contract manufacturing business – but not Intel TV.

And for good reason. TV requires more than just a product; it requires content deals, distribution, a go-to-market strategy, and so much more. Intel has none of that; the entire endeavor was a distraction from the decisions Intel needs to make, and the focus it needs to have on the possibilities for its manufacturing business in particular.

As for CNET, well, they got this one wrong too:

Intel is just one company attempting – and failing – to change the TV industry, underscoring the difficulties involved with convincing the major players to move out of their comfortable and lucrative business models. There are lessons that can be gleaned from Intel’s botched project, lessons that should be heeded by the likes of Apple, Google, and Sony, which are all said to be chasing the same vision.

Their goal is to leap onto the biggest screen in the household, where Americans still spend the majority of their time watching media, and deliver what cable and satellite companies do now and more, all in one.

Luckily for them, the most crippling of OnCue’s problems was specific to Intel — apathy of new management.

That is precisely backwards. Intel under Otellini wasted far too much time, money, and energy on a future they had no business creating; a bit of “apathy” in exchange for paying attention to the core business would have done the company far better. It’s encouraging to see Krzanich moving in this direction.

Since Krzanich took charge, Intel’s TV project has dropped off the radar, except for reports of Intel attempting to sell it off. Where Otellini saw Web television as the chance for Intel to take the lead in a big consumer business rife with dissatisfaction, Krzanich has focused on reviving PC and mobile business, reportedly concluding the TV project was a costly distraction.

Exactly right. Now to seize Intel’s manufacturing opportunity.