On March 13, Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) announced that it would be paying $15.3 billion for computer vision specialist Mobileye (NASDAQOTH:MBBYF). The purpose of this transaction, per Intel, is to merge Mobileye's computer vision technology with its own computing and connectivity technologies to become a "leading end-to-end [autonomous driving] technology provider from the vehicle to the cloud."
To sell investors on this deal, Intel talked up how the total addressable market for self-driving car systems and services could be on the order of $70 billion. Considering that Intel's Internet of Things Group (IoTG), which consists of its current Autonomous Driving Group (ADG), hasn't yet crossed the $3 billion annual revenue mark, the potential long-term upside for Intel if self-driving cars get going could be large.
Nevertheless, I don't really like this deal. Although it was expensive ($15.3 billion for a company that only generated $358 million in revenue in 2016 is steep, even if the growth prospects for the business look good), the high price isn't the only thing that makes me unhappy with it.
It's the fact that this buy is symptomatic of what appears to be a bigger problem for Intel: It's losing its focus.
Intel is big and well funded, but...
To be clear: Intel is an extremely well-funded company and has room to spend lavishly while still maintaining robust profits. If managed properly, Intel should be able to invest in both in the businesses that pay the bills today as well as in the businesses that could potentially drive huge growth tomorrow.
The problem is this: Intel's execution in its core businesses is slipping. Intel routinely sees delays of critical products to its core Client Computing Group (CCG) and Data Center Group (DCG) businesses, weakening its competitive positioning and providing openings to new competitors.
Additionally, Intel's crown jewel and historically a critical enabler of its competitive advantages over the competition -- its Technology and Manufacturing Group (TMG) -- has also struggled to execute for years now; critical manufacturing technologies that are used to build virtually all its processor products almost always see delays now (impacting competitiveness/product schedules), and even when they are finally forced to see the light of day, there seem to be extended yield challenges -- negatively impacting the company's profitability and/or its ability to apply its newest technologies to key product segments.
Intel has some serious issues that it needs to work out in its core businesses -- namely, it has to improve its product execution in PC and data center processors and platforms while at the same time substantially improving its execution in chip manufacturing technology.
Can't Intel do everything?
I am a firm believer of getting the basics right and building from there. It's important for Intel to be a well-oiled machine in the core businesses that today generate value for stockholders, supporting the current share price. And getting the basics right will make it much easier for Intel to successfully attack new markets by leveraging its core technologies and competencies.
If the fundamentals are shaky, however, Intel might find itself losing ground in its core markets while not getting as much traction in new markets (despite spending a lot of money chasing them) as it could otherwise with its core competencies intact.
In blowing $15.3 billion on Mobileye, Intel might improve its position in self-driving cars in the future, and it may very well serve to unlock a larger portion of the $70 billion total addressable market that the company touts. However, if in several years Intel continues to stumble in its core business, then it'll have Mobileye's great computer vision technology but less-than-ideal products to go with that technology.