After 20 years, we’ve learned that Intel plans to leave the motherboard business. This announcement won’t impact Haswell – Intel motherboards will be available in normal volumes and quantities for the fourth-generation Core i7 products. After that, Chipzilla will rely on boards from third parties like Asus, Gigabyte, and MSI.
If you like Intel’s own motherboards, there’s no reason to avoid buying one for Haswell; Intel has confirmed that the next-generation boards will carry the same warranty and support for BIOS updates as previous hardware. On the manufacturing side, however, this announcement could shake up the entire motherboard business.
Why’s the company getting out? Changing times.
In the beginning…
20 years ago, Intel launched its first commercial motherboard. Codenamed “Batman” (and pictured below), the Socket 4 Baby AT motherboard used the 430LX chipset and supported a 60MHz front side bus. Before Batman, Intel had built exclusively for whitebox builders and OEMs. Selling commercially gave the company greater brand presence and allowed Intel to market its own boards as higher quality alternatives to products from other vendors. It also gave the company a way to ensure that at least some motherboards could support new processors from Day 1 of launch.
Intel dominated the early Pentium chipset market, but the advent of Socket 7 brought competing designs from ALI, VIA, and SiS. If you ever owned a board based on one of the alternative chipsets, you know that they were always something of a mixed bag. These boards tended to offer more overclocking support and better CPU upgrades for non-Intel products, but they were less stable than other options.
By way of example, my first from-scratch system build was based on an MS-5169 precisely because I could drop a K6-2+ 550MHz into it – but the ALI Aladdin V chipset was always a bit wonky. I had RAM that would only work in the third DIMM slot and USB support was dodgy.
That’s not to say Intel’s chipsets were free of bugs. The disaster around the i820 chipset gave VIA the opportunity to gobble a huge chunk of the Pentium 3 market. And Intel’s i815 motherboards couldn’t address more than 512MB of RAM. But Intel’s motherboard manufacturing business was extremely successful and gave the company a stick with which to threaten troublesome third party vendors.
Intel is exiting the motherboard manufacturing business because it doesn’t need to build its own desktop products anymore. There’s no competitor offering cut-rate prices and better features. The market has shrunk to two companies: Intel and AMD. There hasn’t been a cross-compatible motherboard for the two since Socket 7. Other motherboard manufacturers have stepped up to fill the gaps in product families and now offer a full range of options across multiple price categories.
What Intel plans to do now is redirect this business segment into pushing designs for the Next Unit of Computing (NUC), all-in-one designs, tablets, and notebooks. The company is still committed to desktop products, but doesn’t see the need to be in the manufacturing chain.
This is a complex move that will have repercussions across the market as companies line up to seize the space Intel vacates. Intel’s decision to invest in different areas of computing could also spark fresh evolution of products and form factors.
Intel has been quick to refute claims that this move is a sign that they are no longer committed to desktop products. I think that’s true. Not wanting to build motherboards isn’t the same as not supporting desktop hardware. What it does reflect, however, is the fact that desktops are increasingly one component that ties computing together, rather than serving as the form factor through which all computing is done.