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Intel (Nasdaq: INTC ) is making new friends. The chip giant wants to spread Atom processors as far afield as possible, so it just signed up Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing (NYSE: TSM ) to help manufacture boatloads of those low-power processors.
In doing so, Intel is treading in the large footsteps of Texas Instruments (NYSE: TXN ) . It's also validating the boldest move archrival Advanced Micro Devices (NYSE: AMD ) has made in ages. Welcome to the asset-light manufacturing club, Intel.
Just the facts
Watching Intel hook up with TSMC is no shocker. The two have been at each other's throat over manufacturing-process technologies for years, often racing to the next, smaller trace width, or jostling to implement fancy new technologies like low-k dielectrics and strained silicon. Intel was handling all of its own manufacturing, except for some memory chips made in cooperation with memory expert Micron (NYSE: MU ) .
Then, last summer, the trans-Pacific rivals embraced in a warm and fluffy agreement to push 450-mm chip wafer technology. Samsung was in on that partnership, too, while AMD stewed on the sidelines, hurling occasional catcalls: "Premature!" "300-mm is enough!" "Not worth the investment!" Despite its booing, Intel and TSMC ultimately sowed the seeds of cooperation.
Now, that seed has blossomed into a full-blown technology platform agreement. TSMC's chip-designing customers such as Marvell (Nasdaq: MRVL ) and QUALCOMM (Nasdaq: QCOM ) may be able to design new systems-on-a-chip around Intel's Atom core, and have them made in TSMC's factories. Intel CEO Paul Otellini says that the move will let other processor designers "customize the implementation precisely to their needs."
It's not exactly an outsourcing contract, since these Atom-based chips would presumably be designed by third-party semiconductor companies. But in some ways, it goes further than a vanilla production-line agreement. Intel is giving others broader access to what is arguably its hottest product right now, and handing off large chunks of the processor-design pipeline to others.
What does it all mean?
So it's a low-risk version of the asset-light model that predecessors like TI or QUALCOMM have embraced. Collecting license fees on third-party products carries higher margins than inserting a new middleman in the manufacturing process, as AMD is doing. But the strategic similarities are striking nonetheless.
This is obviously great news for TSMC. It's also a bit of a condescending pat from Intel on AMD's tousled scalp, and it might give Intel a taste for bigger asset-light moves in the future. In short, everybody wins. (Except maybe AMD.) This deal is a recipe for sectorwide success in these lean times.
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