Today Intel made a sobering, but not entirely unexpected announcement: over the next 3 years Intel will be ramping down its own desktop motherboard business. Intel will continue to supply desktop chipsets for use by 3rd party motherboard manufacturers like ASUS, ASRock and Gigabyte, but after 2013 it will no longer produce and sell its own desktop mITX/mATX/ATX designs in the channel. We will see Haswell motherboards from the group, but that will be the last official hurrah. Intel will stop developing desktop motherboards once the Haswell launch is completed. All Intel boards, including upcoming Haswell motherboards, will carry a full warranty and will be supported by Intel during that period.

This isn't a workforce reduction. Most of the folks who worked in Intel's surprisingly small desktop motherboard division will move on to other groups within Intel that can use their talents. Intel's recently announced NUC will have a roadmap going forward, and some of the desktop board folks will move over there. Intel will continue to produce barebones motherboards for its NUC and future versions of the platform.

Intel will also continue to produce its own form factor reference designs (FFRDs) for Ultrabooks and tablets, which will be where many of these employees will end up as well. As of late Intel has grown quite fond of its FFRD programs, allowing it a small taste of vertical integration (and the benefits that go along with it) without completely alienating its partners. This won't be a transfer of talent to work on smartphone FFRDs at this time however.

The group within Intel responsible for building reference designs that are used internally for testing as well as end up as the base for many 3rd party motherboards will not be impacted by this decision either. The reference board group will continue to operate and supply reference designs to Intel partners. This is good news as it means that you shouldn't see a reduction in quality of what's out there.

It's not too tough to understand why Intel would want to wind down its desktop motherboard business. Intel has two options to keep Wall Street happy: ship tons of product with huge margins and/or generate additional profit (at forgiveably lower margins) that's not directly tied to the PC industry. The overwhelming majority of Intel's business is in the former group. The desktop motherboards division doesn't exactly fit within that category. Motherboards aren't good high margin products, which makes the fact that Intel kept its desktop board business around this long very impressive. Intel doesn't usually keep drains on margins around for too long (look how quickly Intel exited the de-emphasized its consumer SSD business).

The desktop motherboard business lasted so long as a way to ensure that Intel CPUs had a good, stable home (you can't sell CPUs if motherboard quality is questionable). While there was a need for Intel to build motherboards and reference designs 15 years ago, today what comes out of Taiwan is really quite good. Intel's constant integration of components onto the CPU and the resulting consolidation in the motherboard industry has helped ensure that board quality went up.

There's also the obvious motivation: the desktop PC business isn't exactly booming. Late last year word spread of Intel's plans for making Broadwell (14nm Core microprocessor in 2014) BGA-only. While we'll continue to see socketed CPUs beyond that, the cadence will be slower than what we're used to. The focus going forward will be on highly integrated designs, even for the desktop (think all-in-ones, thin mini-ITX, NUC, etc...). Couple that reality with low board margins and exiting the desktop motherboard business  all of the sudden doesn't sound like a bad idea for Intel. 

In the near term, this is probably good for the remaining Taiwanese motherboard manufacturers. They lose a very competent competitor, although not a particularly fierce one. In the long run, it does highlight the importance of having a business not completely tied to desktop PC motherboard sales. 

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  • xrror - Tuesday, January 22, 2013 - link

    This really drives home the point that the DIY PC as we know it is going away.

    It's kinda hard to build motherboards when there are no longer any socketed chips! Yes you can, but then you're in channel conflict with other building integrated cpu+system solutions.

    And while I personally hate it, I don't see how with the focus on ever smaller and power efficiency could continue with physically modular components =(

    It's going to be rough for all the motherboard manufacturers, it's going to be a few brutal years and then by 2015 will there be any "mainstream DIY" left?
    Reply
  • rupaniii - Tuesday, January 22, 2013 - link

    It just seems that we're going to be stuck having to buy integrated BGA solutions or have a very limited selection.

    While AMD could capitalize on this, they are moving onto a new core, ARM.
    Reply
  • DanNeely - Wednesday, January 23, 2013 - link

    The way I've read intel still doing socketed parts but at a slower cadence is that the tock will be mobile only; with new desktop parts only coming out for ticks. The last few tocks haven't really done much for the desktop after all. The main gains have been slightly better power efficiency which matters a lot more on mobile devices and a significantly better IGP which is mostly irrelevant to anyone building a desktop from parts. Reply
  • Haswell1150 - Tuesday, January 22, 2013 - link

    So does the mean that Intel won't be making the motherboard for Apple and Dell? Reply
  • peterwhitehouse - Wednesday, January 23, 2013 - link

    Intel do not manufacture boards for Apple or Dell. Reply
  • Haswell1150 - Wednesday, January 23, 2013 - link

    Then who does make the motherboards for Apple and Dell? Reply
  • DanNeely - Wednesday, January 23, 2013 - link

    Probably FoxConn. They're the back end of 99% of outsourced tech manufacture. Reply
  • Computer Bottleneck - Tuesday, January 22, 2013 - link

    Not sure what to make of this announcement. On the surface it appears to be bad news.

    But if Intel can make something great happen for Ultrabook and tablet FFRD it could get very interesting.

    In the past I have been quite sad to see Intel Notebook Platforms like "Spring Peak" fade away without (as far as I can tell) a replacement. Maybe now Intel will finally have the resources allocated to make strides in this area?

    It will be interesting to follow along over the next 3 to 5 years to see how closely Intel can close the gap between mobile white box and the proprietary OEM designs.
    Reply
  • jjj - Tuesday, January 22, 2013 - link

    this confirms that they are killing the desktop SKUs, at least the reasonable priced ones. Reply
  • twindragon6 - Wednesday, January 23, 2013 - link

    Just get yourself a nice Asus or Gigabyte board like you have been doing for some time now anyways. Intel started to get interesting with the board pictured in the article above. But while exceptionally stable, most of their boards are unimpressive, jank and sub par mainly catering to OEMs. Reply

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