5 PC industry omens hidden in Intel's financial statements

Intel's statement slips glimpses of the industry's future between talk about non-GAAP comparisons and amortization of intangible assets

Multiply the joy of watching paint dry by the sheer pleasure of watching grass grow, and you'll get a decent idea of how exciting it is to parse the average corporate earnings report.

But everything changes when those numbers come from Intel. Don't get me wrong: Intel's Thursday afternoon earning's call was still soul-suckingly boring. But as one of the cornerstones of the old Wintel homogeny, Intel's yearly results and estimates serve as an unofficial barometer for the PC industry as a whole. As Intel goes, so goes the entire desktop ecosystem, and hidden deep in the company's newly released financial statements are five portents for the PC industry of 2013--and beyond.

1. The PC is not dead

This one's easy: Next time a pundit tells you the PC is going the way of the dodo, tell him to stuff it. Sure, general PC sales were down slightly in 2012--3 percent in the case of Intel's PC Clients Group, and an estimated 3 to 5 percent for the industry overall--but desktops and laptops still do tremendous business.

"If you're looking at 350 million units (shipped in 2012), that is not a dead market," says Patrick Moorhead, founder and principal analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy. "The PC industry may be slowing, but it's certainly not dead."

As a whole, Intel managed to snag $53.3 billion--yes, billion with a "B"--in revenue in 2012. That's more than $1 billion week in and week out. Oh, and while Intel's PC revenues were down 3 percent in 2012, actual unit volume was only down 1 percent. Dead? Hah.

2. ...but the focus is changing

No, the consumer PC hasn't given up the ghost, but its days of epic growth have definitely stalled. Intel only expects sales revenues to increase in the single digits in 2013 after the down year of 2012.

Intel sees the writing on the wall and is working hard to diversify its lineup to match industry trends--starting, of course, with those pesky tablets. During his intro to Intel's earnings conference, CFO Stacy Smith spent as much time waxing poetic about the company's 2013 mobile initiatives as he did talking up Ultrabooks and desktop processors. That itself follows a new trend for the company: At CES, Intel's Bay Trail tablet processors and Lexington smartphone processors enjoyed just as much limelight as the upcoming Haswell CPUs.

The company is also placing a bigger focus on business customers, and, yes, the now-ubiquitous cloud. Intel's server-focused Data Center Group was the only division that saw revenues increase in 2012, and Intel expects DCG's revenues to grow in double digits this year. The new focus on servers and mobile technology give Intel a unique chance to double-dip the market.

"Data center and cloud are Intel," Moorhead says. "Their big boosts in sales were driven by that. Every handset and tablet that gets sold connects to the cloud, and Intel is providing the cloud. People forget that their hardware is driving the cloud right now."

ARM, the 800-pound gorilla in the mobile world, is also turning its attention to the cloud, with 64-bit ARM processors expected to hit server racks in 2014. In fact, the entire PC industry has shifted a lot of focus to the business arena, emphasized by Dell and HP's attempted reinventions as enterprise-focused companies.

3. Blurring lines and blending uses

The future, to hear Intel CEO Paul Otellini tell it to investors, lies in hybrids. (That shouldn't come as a surprise if you've been paying attention thus far.)

The first round of Windows 8 hybrids hasn't exactly taken the world by storm, but Otellini expects mobile technology to split into two distinct camps going forward: tablets and phablets in the 5- to 7-inch range, and larger 10-inch-plus offerings. Otellini expects those larger hybrids to offer PC-like performance in a slim, tablet-like form factor thanks to power improvements found in the Haswell and Broadwell processors slated to launch over the next two years. Patrick Moorhead agrees.

"All points converge on 2014," Moorhead says. "In 2014, you'll be able to have a very high performance, 9mm thin, fanless, low-cost tablet based on Haswell technology. At 10 inches and above, you'll be able to slide it right into a keyboard dock. Why on earth would you buy a separate tablet? Because you're not compromising as a notebook, and you're not compromising as a tablet, there really won't be a market for stand-alone 10-inch tablets." That doesn't sound good for Windows RT--or for notebooks, really.

Intel's already laying the base for the flipping, sliding, and oh-so-versatile future of laptops. At CES, the company announced that any laptops powered by Haswell processors will need to sport a touchscreen in order to also sport the Ultrabook name.

4. Racing towards the top

One thing about hybrids, though: They're more expensive than their less-flexible counterparts. Despite recent howls for cheap touchscreen notebooks to boost Windows 8 sales, we're more likely to see manufacturers futzing around in the high end rather than duking it out for low-cost supremacy.

Sales of touch-enabled Windows 8 models in the fourth quarter have convinced Otellini that "people are willing to spend a little bit more to get a more capable product. That's certainly been true in the Apple model for many, many years, and I think there is a model of getting paid for innovation." Get ready to whip out your checkbooks, folks.

NPD data from the holiday season found that the average selling price of an Apple laptop was $1,419--exactly $999 more than the $420 selling price of the average Windows notebook. Meanwhile, sales of Windows notebooks under $500 dropped 16 percent, while sales of $500-plus laptops grew by 4 percent. OEMs aren't dumb. They want in on that gravy train, and we've already seen manufacturers like Dell and Acer dump low-end products to focus on Ultrabooks and other products with higher margins, though that didn't exactly pay off in 2012's down economy.

But fear not, budget-minded PC fans: Cheap laptops aren't quite ready to doddle off into the sunset quite yet. "Intel's not saying they won't participate in the low-end market. In fact, they have parts like Atom and Pentium that prove that they will," Moorhead says. "What they're saying is that they're going to put their focus into new usage models that require higher performance and drive even better experiences."

Those better experiences, Moorhead says, will culminate in Intel's " Perceptual computing" initiative, which blends computer control with human senses. Speaking of innovation...

5. Racing towards the top, part II: Moore continues laying down the law

Consumer PC sales may be slowing, but Intel's focus on creating smaller, better, more efficient processors hasn't wavered. The company is still building towards a bright PC future, spending a whopping $18.2 billion--again, that's billion with a "B"--on R&D and acquisitions last year. That number's expected to jump to $18.9 billion in 2013.

Intel isn't just funding killer company parties with all that cash, either. The company plans to start production on the 14nm chip-making manufacturing process in 2013. "This puts us significantly ahead of the competition," CFO Smith said during the earnings conference. Intel's current Ivy Bridge chips are built using a 22nm manufacturing process, while AMD's processors have been stuck at 28nm.

Expect 14nm Haswell chips to start showing up in 2014, but that's not all Intel has up its sleeve. In 2013, the company also plans to start initial work on the 10nm manufacturing process, the 2016 die-shrink "tick" following the new Skylake "tock" architecture planned for 2015.

But while Intel's chips are getting smaller and smaller, the company's working hard to increase the size of the silicon wafers those chips are cut from. Current wafers measure 300mm, and Intel wants to move to 450mm. Bigger wafers mean lower production costs, which might--just maybe--result in lower CPU prices in the future. Although the move to larger wafers isn't expected to really start ramping up until the latter half of the decade, Intel has already begun investing in the transition process. Yep, Chipzilla thinks long-term.

A key 2012 investment could pay off for both of those initiatives. In July, Intel gave ASML Holdings $3.3 billion to stimulate the development of both 450mm wafers and extreme ultraviolet lithography, a next-gen technology candidate that could help Intel make chips using ever-smaller CMOS manufacturing processes. Intel expects the immersion lithography process used to make current day chips to become ineffective in sub-10nm chips.

Intel has said it doesn't expect the EUVL technology or 450mm wafers to be ready for the 2016 roll-out of 10nm "Skymont" chips, but Otellini declined to provide an update about 10nm chips and the possible use of EUVL when asked about it during the earnings conference.

To infinity, and beyond!

Sure, Intel's operating income may be down a bit in 2012, but taken overall, the company's earnings point to a vibrant, cutting-edge future for PCs, and hundreds of millions of PCs at that. That future might look different than the present we recognize, with more blurring of the lines and segmented niches, but the PC's outlook has never looked brighter--or more utterly transformative.

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