When Innovation Isn’t Enough: Three Lessons from Intel’s Changing Fortunes and Uncertain Future

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In the coming weeks and months, I’ll be writing more about innovation – especially as it relates to the customer experience. There’s a pretty amazing equation happening right now: massive technological change + a global pandemic = exceptional changes in consumer behavior. How can I not want to talk about that?

A lot of that massive technological change is driven by mobile devices. Want to know what else is driven by mobile, the computer system processor market. You may not be aware, but a multi-billion dollar company we rely on every day is, for about the first time in its history, at risk of becoming an also-ran as a result of mobile. It has the potential to be the poster child for what happens when you allow having the dominant design prevent you from taking risks. That company is Intel.

Shifting Landscape

Who makes the system processor that powers your computer? Almost as if I have ESP, I can tell you – it’s Intel (pipe down, you in the AMD camp). Who makes the processor that powers your phone? That’s not as simple but, generally, it’s either Apple (they make their own), Qualcomm or Samsung (they make their own for international devices). It’s almost never Intel — and therein lies the rub.

This is a cautionary tale of complacency. Intel has owned the computer system processor market for about forty years. The 8086 processor that powered early IBM computers was released in the late 1970s. They knew more about the manufacture of chips than almost any other company. That experience didn’t translate well to mobile so new entrants managed to disrupt them and eat their lunch.

It’s not that Intel hasn’t tried; they have. They’ve failed to make any significant headway. There are some technical reasons dealing with power consumption vs performance for what’s happening to Intel that go beyond the scope of this post. If you’re interested in learning more about that, read this and read this.

What’s the impact of all of this? There’s a tectonic shift happening under your feet:

Simply Innovating Isn’t Enough

How did this happen? Interestingly, continuous improvement is a key component of innovation and Intel does that. They release new, more powerful chips every few years and while doing so refine their production processes and improve the performance of their products. They’re innovating correctly — or so you would think.

Here’s what I think went wrong:

  1. They lost site of their customers – they were expert at how customers used their products but not knowledgeable about how their customers used other products – how they lived their lives

  2. They downplayed the risks – the Arm technology used in mobile processors was generally considered to be most applicable to low-power consumption devices – not computers, thus not presenting Intel with a true threat. Except that they are perfect for mobile devices

  3. Having the wrong focus – Compare this mission statement from Intel:

We engineer solutions for our customers’ greatest challenges with reliable, cloud to edge computing, inspired by Moore’s Law

with this one from Qualcomm:

We come from diverse cultures and have unique perspectives. Together, we focus on a single goal—we invent breakthrough technologies that transform how the world connects, computes, and communicates.

Which one feels modern and most likely to be that of a company aligned with how we live our lives today and will in the future?

Even with its unlimited resources, innovating in-step with its customers proved difficult. What do you think? Have you seen other instances of industry leaders failing to keep up with their customers? Let me know!

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