We’re less than a week away from the launch of AMD’s first Zen-based processors and, from the official benchmark numbers, it looks like AMD Ryzen will have a huge influence on the top-end of the microprocessor market. But AMD haven’t forgotten what happened the last time they made this sort of impact on the CPU world…
A great CPU needs a top GPU to make a powerful gaming system. Check out our guide to the best graphics cards to pair up with Ryzen.
In the early 2000s AMD managed to create an x86 processor architecture which gave Intel’s a swift kick in the branch predictors and propelled them into a position of having a technologically superior product to that of their long-time rivals.
But having that tech lead wasn’t enough to keep Intel from ruling the roost when it came to getting product into the PCs people actually bought. In 2001 AMD filed a complaint to the European Commission alleging Intel was engaging in dodgy practices to stop their current and potential CPU customers from using AMD chips.
That was eventually upheld in 2009 with the EC finding Intel in breach of Article 82 of the European Commission Treaty by making alleged “payments to prevent the sales of specific rival products.” The EC imposed a fine of $1.4bn, which at the time - when Intel was back to its silicon dominating best - was kinda like loose change down the back of the sofa to them, but gave a beleaguered AMD a much-needed cash injection.
While the money helped AMD's cashflow in 2009 the damage to the business, and to the psychology of the company as a whole, was great and is still being felt today.
Because I’m an old man with nothing better to do with my evenings than pore over tech companies' financial reports I’ve been doing some digging into AMD's recent Form 10-K (the annual report into a company's financial performance). These reports aren’t just pages and pages of impenetrable streams of numbers - well… maybe in part - they also cover the company’s background and, almost more importantly, who they see as their competition.
AMD’s 10-K for 2016 spends quite a lot of ink talking about their Intel rivals and what impact they might have on the company’s fiscal performance going forward. And, to me, that feels a lot like they haven’t gotten over the situation they endured in the naughties. Kinda like the way someone talks about an ex who really burned them, but they’re now fine about it. You hear me, I said I’m fine about it. FINE.
“Intel’s market share, margins and significant financial resources enable it to market its products aggressively, to target our customers and our channel partners with special incentives and to influence customers who do business with us,” AMD say in the latest report. “These aggressive activities have in the past resulted in lower unit sales and a lower average selling price for many of our products and adversely affected our margins and profitability.”
AMD then go on to talk about Intel’s business practices, such as rebates and exclusivity payments to their current and potential customers and partners, which could result in AMD being shut out by widespread product arrangements.
But they’re not just worried about Intel taking non-technological measures to restrict the spread and sales of their Ryzen CPUs, they’re also concerned about Intel buddying up with Nvidia to disadvantage their Radeon graphics silicon. Given the imminent AMD Vega launch they’ll be going head-to-head on the high-end GPU front too.
“Intel could also take actions that place our discrete GPUs at a competitive disadvantage,” the report says, “including giving one or more of our competitors in the graphics market, such as Nvidia Corporation, preferential access to its proprietary graphics interface or other useful information.”
It does have to be said though part of the Form 10-K report is about going into minute detail about the company, the business and the competitive marketplace as a whole. It is perfectly reasonable then for AMD to address any potential factors that might impact the future performance of the financial side of their technology, whether or not they're necessarily regarded as particularly likely or significant.
The fact they make so much mention of Intel and their business practices though still feels partly like a hangover from the troubles they had with Intel in the past, and also shows they still have some concern something similar might happen again.
By contrast it’s also interesting to note how little acknowledgement Intel give AMD in their own Form 10-K. AMD mentions Intel 44 times throughout their document; Intel only mentions AMD seven times, and even then just in the section about their previous litigation. Though that could still be a symptom of Intel not taking their AMD competition seriously enough.
In Nvidia’s last Form 10-K AMD gets even shorter shrift - they only appear twice. Though that might change this year, given the increased GPU competition from AMD over the last twelve months. The green team though won’t be releasing their new report until March.
But, whatever AMD’s caution or fears, it looks like Ryzen is set to be a seriously disruptive CPU range, taking specific aim at Intel’s high-priced, high-end desktop chips. If that can translate into a seriously increased market share for AMD then Intel are surely going to have to do something to swing things back their way.
And it's going to be really interesting to see how they respond when the Ryzen chips are finally out in the wild and in people's gaming PCs.