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19 January 2021

Mobile chip industry at a crossroads, as Intel and Qualcomm change CEO

How far CEOs shape their companies and how far they merely work within trends that are in motion anyway is an endless debate and, like the ‘great man’ theory of history, one that changes with fashion. But the appointment of a new CEO is always a time of anticipation – that a struggling company might find its way, or a dramatic new strategy might emerge.

It is even more interesting when two arch-rivals change leadership at the same time. That happened in the mobile semiconductor business in 2013, when Intel and ARM appointed new CEOs within weeks of one another. Now, there is a similar upheaval, with Qualcomm appointing Cristiano Amon as its new CEO, and Intel naming Pat Gelsinger, who returns to the fold after a successful spell heading up VMware.

Gelsinger will still be dealing with some of the ripples from those 2013 appointments. Simon Segars, at ARM, saw the company sold to Softbank of Japan and now potentially to Nvidia of the USA – if the latter succeeds it raises some significant concerns for the future of open mobile platforms, but it will certainly turn Nvidia into a mighty challenger to Intel, with a converged platform spanning different architectures, use cases and intellectual property models. In that event, Amon too will need to make some key decisions, as one of the largest licensees of the ARM processor architectures, and decide whether to make common cause with Nvidia, or build greater self-sufficiency in future generations of technology.

Brian Krzanich’s term at Intel, which ended in 2018, appeared less momentous but in fact introduced some strong new thinking. Some ultimately had limited impact, notably his bid to build up a foundry business; other decisions have the potential to be critical to Intel’s progress in the 2020s, notably the acquisition of FGPA company Altera (even more interesting now that AMD is making a parallel acquisition, of the other FPGA major, Xilinx). His successor, Robert Swan, was always in a caretaker position but has overseen considerable progress in building Intel a strong position in the mobile market, particularly in platforms for virtualized RAN.

Now we will see whether Gelsinger brings to his new role some of the fire and vision he had as Intel’s CTO in the early 2000s, as well as some of the key strategic sense he applied to VMware. In some ways he is a typical Intel CEO – an engineer by background, and a long-time veteran of the company, though with the big exception that he left the firm for more than a decade, first to go to EMC in 2009 and then VMware in 2012. That has given him experience in a very different environment from Intel’s, surrounded by cloud and software technologies, and in a cloud-driven world, Intel will hope that knowledge proves helpful in the very necessary process of reinventing the semiconductor giant to be able to fend off Nvidia, Samsung, AMD/Xilinx, Marvell and Qualcomm, among the diverse players which are battling for a share of its core data center markets, and for a influential role in the 5G ecosystem.