Intel’s New Aggression

Intel under new CEO Pat Gelsinger has decided to compete more aggressively and this was reflected in its presentation at Cloud Field Day 11. But I’m not convinced that Intel knows how to do this well.

Yet.

Intel’s strong branding and long track record provides solid credibility that it has products that will work in the categories in which it operates. But the vigour of its competitors—Arm, AMD, and Nvidia in particular—require a change to its traditional, more passive approach, to marketing its products. It can no longer coast on the momentum of past success with mere maintenance and has to push again to invest. Intel is responding to this challenge, which is good to see.

Intel seems to be taking a “Choose Intel, and the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts” approach. This is aided by the broad array of options Intel provides in its different product categories. But the way it chooses to construct this the whole suffers from an inward-looking approach in certain areas.

For example, the tight coupling between Optane and Xeon limits the prospects for Optane when it could be a useful onramp for bringing back customers who’ve chosen a different CPU brand for now. An all-or-nothing ultimatum requires a clearly superior product across multiple dimensions, and Intel can’t credibly claim this superiority for its CPUs any more. And, sadly, the early promise of Optane has given way to a reality that, while still very impressive, seems lesser because of the inflated expectations. With neither Optane nor the Xeon proving a strong enough draw on their own, the exclusivity of this combination serves as a barrier to adoption rather than a built-in upsell or attractive package-deal.

Intel hasn’t quite figured out how to take on competitors that it has traditionally ignored. It feels defensive, unsure of itself, and keen to latch on to any perceived weakness of a competitor’s product regardless of whether customers actually care about the tradeoffs that have been made. Comparisons that seem aimed at clearing up customer misconceptions with a “See? It’s actually not that bad!” message don’t land well. Harping on about a lack of performance when it’s power consumption that customers care about isn’t a winning strategy, either.

What particularly bothers me is that Intel seems to be focusing on what it thinks customers should care about rather than what they actually do care about in its newfound attempts at aggression.

Side-by-side comparisons with competitors are always tricky because you’re using your time to make people more aware of your competitors, and that’s time you could be spending talking about yourself and your products. There needs to be a pretty compelling reason to do it, and you should be crystal clear on what that is. That focus is lacking from Intel’s approach so far, which risks doing the competitors’ jobs for them.

Intel has a wide portfolio of options, but it’s not always clear who these options are for and why they should care about them. Greater clarity is needed, and potentially a ruthless culling of products for which the case for existing isn’t sufficiently compelling. This is always hard to do, but killing your darlings is necessary maintenance if the whole company is to remain healthy.

I believe that Intel will figure this out eventually, and the newfound energy injected by Gelsinger’s arrival has begun a long-overdue refresh of the brand and its place in the industry. Intel remains a large and capable company with plenty of compelling products. A bit of spring cleaning, and a little time reflecting on who products are really for, will help to bring the necessary focus.

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