Incoming CEO of a Sand-Polishing Company in Oregon Makes Curious Remark

Tom Warren, writing for The Verge last Friday:

Intel’s new CEO, Pat Gelsinger, doesn’t start his new role until February, but he’s already prepping the company to take on Apple’s M1 chips. The Oregonian, a local newspaper in Oregon where Intel maintains a large presence, reports that the chip maker held an all-hands company meeting yesterday, and Gelsinger attended.

“We have to deliver better products to the PC ecosystem than any possible thing that a lifestyle company in Cupertino” makes, Gelsinger reportedly told Intel employees. “We have to be that good, in the future.”

As you’d imagine, Gelsinger’s description of Apple got a fair amount of attention, with most reports, including The Oregonian’s original, taking it as a “derisive” jab. Claim chowder material, if you will.

I doubt that’s how he meant it. It wasn’t a public statement, and we don’t have video or audio, so maybe he did mean it derisively. In which case, well, good luck. But I really doubt it. My guess is that if you heard him saying it, it would be obvious he was making a joke and referring to Apple in a jokey “they who shall not be named” way. As the incoming CEO of Intel, surely Gelsinger knows enough to see that Apple has completely eclipsed Intel. Apple’s chips are better designed, and thanks to their fab partner TSMC, better made. This isn’t conjecture, these are facts, and computer chip facts are among the coldest and hardest facts in the world.

The gold standard for foot-in-the-mouth derisive claim chowder is Ed Colligan — then-CEO of Palm — in late November 2006, just five weeks before Apple unveiled the then-only-rumored iPhone:

Responding to questions from New York Times correspondent John Markoff at a Churchill Club breakfast gathering Thursday morning, Colligan laughed off the idea that any company — including the wildly popular Apple Computer — could easily win customers in the finicky smart-phone sector.

“We’ve learned and struggled for a few years here figuring out how to make a decent phone,” he said. “PC guys are not going to just figure this out. They’re not going to just walk in.”

What if Steve Jobs’ company did bring an iPod phone to market? Well, it would probably use Wi-Fi technology and could be distributed through the Apple stores and not the carriers like Verizon or Cingular, Colligan theorized.

Here’s a bit from the column I wrote at the time. It holds up pretty well. “Palm CEO Ed Colligan’s Head Seems to be Stuck Somewhere”:

I saw this last week, and it took me until today to stop laughing and try to figure out a way to write about it. It’s a simple little three-sentence quote, but I’m not sure what I like best about it.

Is it the way he describes Apple as “PC guys”? As in like, These guys just make computers, they don’t understand the nuances of user interface and experience design, especially with regard, to, uh, handheld consumer electronics. Nope, no handheld consumer electronics expertise at Apple. By the way, let me show you how my Treo can play MP3s!

Or is it the fact that Palm is using Microsoft’s Windows Mobile OS on some of its Treo phones? Apple, they’re just “PC guys”, but Microsoft, they’re connoisseurs of elegant UI design, apparently.

No, no. What I like best is where Colligan says Palm has “struggled for a few years here figuring out how to make a decent phone.” Isn’t it possible that, if Apple is indeed entering the mobile phone market, that Apple has also struggled with the problem for a few years? It’s just that Apple hasn’t been selling their less-than-decent designs along the way, like Palm has. (It’s also certainly the case that an Apple phone would aspire to something better than “decent”.)

I don’t see that sort of blind bluster in Gelsinger’s description of “a lifestyle company in Cupertino”. The line comes across poorly in print, but my guess is that in person, he said it in a manner that wasn’t putting Apple down, per se, but rather building Intel up. “If they can do it, we can do it — we’re Intel.” It’s easy to imagine how such a line, played for a laugh, would work amongst an audience of Intel employees — who themselves are very much aware of Apple’s chipmaking prowess. (Many talented engineers who previously worked at Intel have moved to the lifestyle industry.)

Again, the M1 Macs are out. Everyone at Intel knows they’re both faster and consume less power than Intel’s chips. And they know, because it’s already happened, that nearly the entire MacOS software ecosystem made the transition just fine. Legacy Mac software isn’t going to buy Intel any time at all. And we haven’t even seen Apple’s high-end laptop or workstation chips yet. They all know Apple’s Mac business was good business for Intel, and now it’s gone. They lost it.

Ed Colligan in late 2006 quite obviously had no idea what was about to happen to Palm. He really didn’t seem knowledgeable enough to be worried — not about how technically shitty Palm’s hardware and (especially) software stacks were, nor how good Apple’s were (in the wake of Mac OS X and the iPod). He was like the captain on The Titanic dismissing any concerns about icebergs as nonsense.

Gelsinger, speaking in early 2021, knows that Intel fell behind years ago — in an industry where it’s notoriously hard to catch up. He’s taking over a ship that already hit an iceberg and is in need of saving. Sometimes you talk trash about your opponent because you’re an idiot. But other times, you talk a little trash to fire up your own team.

This feels like that to me.

  1. I’m linking here to The Verge’s story, not The Oregonian’s original report, because The Oregonian has the story behind a subscriber-only paywall. A newspaper with a paywall with no free stories — attention leadership of The Oregonian: you are not The Wall Street Journal. ↩︎