Intel is still feeling the burn from the chip shortage. It’s struggling to fully capitalize on tremendous pandemic-fueled demand for new PCs, because you can’t make a laptop with Intel chips alone. And yet that didn’t stop Intel from having its best financial year ever — in today’s Q4 2021 earnings, it’s reporting its highest quarterly and highest yearly revenue ever, at $19.5 billion and $74.7 billion, respectively — and four other revenue records as well. Profits weren’t nearly as rosy: net income went down 21 percent in the quarter and 5 percent year over year to $4.6 billion and $19.9 billion, respectively.
CEO Pat Gelsinger warned about other suppliers’ chips constraining the company’s growth during Intel’s Q3 2021 earnings in October when the company announced its Client Computing Group’s revenues had actually shrunk by 2 percent. Today, Intel’s Q4 earnings show things haven’t improved there: CCG is down 7 percent year over year, again due to laptops. Intel’s presentation shows laptop revenue is down 16 percent year over year because it can’t ship nearly as many of them as it likes, even though it’s likely making more money from each one: the average selling price of those laptop components went up 14 percent.
But desktops are up, and the company’s other divisions more than made up for the plunge (revenue-wise anyhow), with Intel’s data center group up 20 percent year over year to $7.3 billion. Smaller businesses like Intel’s Internet of Things Group (IOTG) and Mobileye (its self-driving car tech company) also saw more demand, up 36 percent and 7 percent in Q4 2021 compared to Q4 2020. They grew 33 percent and 43 percent this year, respectively.
In October, Gelsinger suggested that the chip shortage wouldn’t end until at least 2023, which somewhat sucks for Intel when you consider that the PC’s experiencing a bit of a renaissance right now. 2020 marked the PC industry’s first big growth in a decade, and earlier this month, Gartner and IDC reported that sales grew an additional 10-15 percent in 2021, with over 340 million PCs shipped, and enough demand that IDC analysts say it could have been even bigger if not for the shortage.
But Intel doesn’t automatically get to profit from all of that growth, and not just because of other suppliers. It’s also got some serious competition these days. The Verge’s list of the best laptops includes numerous machines that don’t contain Intel chips at all, but rather Apple and AMD. That’s not something we’ve been able to say many times over the past decade! AMD is pushing even further on laptop chips this year, and Qualcomm is throwing its hat back in the ring again too. It’s a rough time for Intel to be behind on processor technology, even if our first review of Alder Lake seems like it might help.
Intel does have some intriguing initiatives in the works to turn its fortunes around, including tens of billions of dollars in investment in more chipmaking facilities (such as its new $20 billion location in Ohio, which doubles as a made-in-USA political play for subsidies) and its own discrete graphics processors dubbed Intel Arc. The Intel Arc Alchemist is looking like a dark horse candidate to shake up the GPU market in both desktops and laptops later this year.
On today’s earnings call, Gelsinger discussed the chip shortage a bit, particularly as it impacts laptops:
“Shortages in substrates, components and foundry silicon has limited our customers’ ability to ship and finish systems across the industry. This was most acutely felt in the client market, particularly in notebooks, but constraints have widely impacted other markets, including automotive, the internet of things, and the data center.”
“As we predicted, these ecosystem constraints are expected to persist throughout 2022 and into 2023 with incremental improvements over this period,” he added. Later on the call, he suggested that components like power controllers and display lid controllers are among the components that have been hard to find.
Intel CFO David Zinsner also pointed out that laptop sales might also be affected by “inventory burn as OEMs work through inventory imbalances created by ecosystem constraints that have limited their ability to ship systems in certain segments.” We’re curious if that means we’ll see sales on less desirable older-gen laptops.
But Gelsinger said that Intel has “started to see inventories return to pre-pandemic levels,” and says the company’s laptop processor shipments have been strong: “Tiger Lake has shipped over 100 million units, making it the fastest ramping notebook in our history,” said Gelsinger. Intel previously announced that Tiger Lake had hit 30 million shipments last March.
“We remain on or ahead of schedule for Intel 4, 3, 20A and 18A against the timeline we laid out in July,” he said, referring to the company’s roadmap for ever smaller next-generation process nodes.
Intel’s plan to invest tens of billions of dollars in new fabs isn’t necessarily sitting well with financial analysts, by the way. On the call, the company repeatedly had to defend itself against pointed questions about its reduced margins. Intel suggests the margins should recover at the end of a five-year window. (That would be after both the Arizona and Ohio fabs have spun up and begun producing chips in 2024 and 2025 respectively.)
Update, 5:20PM ET: Added comments from the Intel earnings call about the ongoing chip shortage.
Update, 5:58PM ET: Added more comments.