It was a little more than a year ago that Intel (Nasdaq: INTC ) followed rival Advanced Micro Devices (NYSE: AMD ) by tuning its Xeon microprocessors for 32- and 64-bit computing. It was a remarkable turnabout for the pioneering chipmaker, which had a reputation for being first to market with the latest microprocessor innovation.
AMD kept the pressure on through much of last year, and it didn't help that Intel shot itself in the foot with product delays and manufacturing flaws. But now the proverbial shoe may be back on Intel's foot. Yesterday brought news of Intel shipping its first dual-core chips to its PC customers. And that was followed quickly by an announcement from Dell (Nasdaq: DELL ) that it would be among the first to offer Intel's dual-core chips in its desktop and workstation lines. Conversely, AMD is not expected to roll out its dual-cores till later this month at the earliest.
The turnabout is remarkable, considering sentiments last year were that Intel would get dual-core chips out at the end of this year. Then the outlook was upgraded to sometime during the second quarter. But now Intel has beaten AMD cold.
With demand for dual cores -- which effectively combine two microprocessors into one unit so as to handle more computing tasks simultaneously -- expected to be high, Intel's achievement could prove to be a serious blow to its rival. We'll know more tomorrow when AMD reports earnings. That's when we'll find out whether AMD's flash business has held up under intense pricing pressure.
In January, the upstart chipmaker reported a net loss for the fourth quarter fueled mostly by a $39 million loss in its flash unit. As AMD CEO Hector Ruiz said, it was a "freaking dismal quarter in flash." But AMD has pledged to turn it around. It had better. The PC microprocessor business, which grew 8% sequentially last quarter and which outperformed throughout 2004, has been carrying AMD recently. That was expected to continue with chipmaker's timing and technology edge in dual-core processors. Now, at least the timing edge appears to have evaporated. And that puts pressure back on flash, which still represents nearly 50% of AMD's business.
Foolish investors peeking at tomorrow's earnings report can expect to see a sequential decline in overall sales because of seasonality. But the key is profitability, especially in flash. If it becomes a moneymaker once again, it will be the strongest signal yet that AMD remains in fighting shape. A flash point, indeed.
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Fool contributor Tim Beyers didn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story at the time of publication. You can find out what's in his portfolio by checking Tim's Fool profile, which is here. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.