The future of AMD: consoles, tablets and hybrids
2nd Aug 2013 | 09:56
How the fallen giant is changing its focus to new-gen tech
The traditional PC market is shifting. You've only got to look at the huge growth in Android devices to see that. The huge rise in ARM-powered computing devices has certainly been a shock to the system for processor giant Intel and even more so for its traditional x86 competitor AMD.
Kevin Lensing, AMD's head of mobility, was fairly honest in his assessment of the market at a recent AMD event attended by TechRadar. "Going back to 2000, you could look at the chart and point to 15% growth in the marketplace [every year]. It was always there and we put new products in the market that were better every year," he says.
Getting left behind
AMD's success story "levelled off" in 2010 and then, as Lensing says, "we really started to decline. There was a lot of head-scratching." Predictably, he blames tablets for the decline rather than AMD's own issues, such as performance problems and Intel's giant share of the laptop market.
"It's not particularly difficult to understand when you [factor in] iOS and Android. The tablet space really has taken over the innovation pipeline.
"That 15% growth is still there, but it's [about other devices] now. So the question is what the PC ecosystem is going to do about it. I think there's an opportunity and AMD is in a unique position to change this direction."
Lensing says that the old ecosystem was about big screens, x86 performance and getting things done while newer, tablet-based ecosystems are focused on smaller screens and interactivity. The new way is about experiences and how things look and feel. And communication, once a small facet of what a PC can do, is at the heart of most devices now.
Lensing feels that AMD - along with the traditional PC industry as a whole - needs to move on, knuckle down and get a share of the market: "We need better screens and software that doesn't slow you down," he says, also making the point that low power tablets can't always provide the performance that people want.
The potential for AMD
Interestingly, Lensing says that tablets have "lost their ability" to innovate in graphics - though it's questionable if tablets ever had that ability in the first place. And then there's compute power. "They're coming up from the bottom [in terms of performance per watt] as Windows devices are coming down the power curve. The interesting thing is they're about to meet in the middle. And that's where the real opportunity is for us."
Lensing believes that while the app models are there for iOS and Android, the hardware still has a long way to go to be able to compete with the PC at the top level. And that leaves the door open for power efficient but performance-centric x86 silicon in tablet form factors.
The changing market
While Lensing is keen for AMD move on, it's Dr Lisa Su's job to make it happen. She is head of AMD's global business units and argues convincingly that the organisation is evolving. "We're reshaping the company," she says.
"You always knew AMD as a CPU company and that's what we were. But look at how the world is changing, PC market is changing, how the applications are changing, how OEMs are changing. We've really looked at what we want to be in five years."
Su says that AMD wants to build on the success of its tailored solutions division - in essence it wants to take advantage of the opportunity presented by consoles, not least its involvement in both the Sony PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. "We really want to be the leading designer and integrator of tailored solutions," she says.
"We really believe [custom solutions are] a huge growth market for us in the future. Why is that? Because every OEM is looking for a way to differentiate. Using standard components it's hard to differentiate. The PlayStation 4 uses AMD's APU with eight Jaguar cores, over 1.8 TFLOPS of next-gen Radeon graphics - bringing together the PC ecosystem and the gaming ecosystem."
A key part of AMD's strategy is that APUs are the future. "This is something that's very clear," says Su. "We've been talking about the APU for a couple of years, but it's still very new and it's an important architecture, the bringing together of the CPU and GPU. This is our third generation, Llano, Trinity and now Richland. If you look at where the competition is going, they have taken some of our concepts, but our commitment to the integration of processor and graphics is number one in the industry."
Su is honest when she says not everyone shares AMD's optimism over consoles: "I would say that I love this business for a couple of reasons. First, high volume, over 100 million units - that's a very nice market. Second, it's absolutely playing into our sweet spot - we've said APUs are the centre of our universe.
"This is an application that's taken an APU architecture and tailored it for this application. A third point is that it really allows us to bring applications to a different level. Before we had developers developing for the PC ecosystem and the gaming ecosystem.
"They were architecturally different, so EA or any other developer had to split their resources over both ecosystems."
AMD says that by bringing those architectures closer together - although they're not the same, they are similar - it enables the company to develop the next generation of its Radeon graphics.
Lensing was obviously keen to promote AMD's now-released ultra-low power quad-core platform for tablets and small touchscreen Windows 8 laptops named Temash. The dual and quad-core chips are designed to slot in above Intel's Clover Trail Atom platform in performance terms. AMD is aiming them squarely at Windows 8 tablet and hybrid devices where they'll be branded as the AMD A4 and AMD A6.
But AMD's problem, as ever, is getting manufacturers to take its hardware given the golden handcuff agreements many manufacturers have with Intel. Yet Lensing is bullish. "We've sold over 50 million [previous generation] Brazos chips. We're very confident we're going to be doing the same with Kabini. We took a product that people thought would compete with Atom, but we took it up against the low end of the mainstream market."
Su does sound a note that the old AMD hasn't gone away. "The PC business does have high-growth segments and [the market is] still shipping over 300 million units a year," she says.
"It's a good business, but it's facing some challenges. In graphics we have undiputed graphics leadership and it goes through all our [products] - it's very key for us to have that. We see a lot of growth in the server market and AMD is in a unique position to offer both x86 and ARM server form factors."
But Su is certain that AMD's reliance on traditional computing will decline. "Traditional computing is always going to be a part of AMD's business, but our technology can go further. And that's really where we're focusing on AMD over the next couple of years. Today more than 80% of our business is the PC business but by the end of 2013 embedded and semi-custom will be 20% of our business."