Intel Earnings: Great Numbers, and Hidden Troubles

Last Updated Apr 14, 2010 10:52 AM EDT

Intel's strong earnings results, which the company called its "best first quarter ever," are good news for investors. The company reported 63 percent gross margins, net income of $2.4 billion, and 43 cents earnings per share.

But when you look at the details, what Intel's results say about the state of the high-tech industry is more ambiguous.

Consider the core business of Intel, which is microprocessors. Compared to last quarter:

  • PC Client group revenue was flat
  • Data Center group revenue was down 8 percent
  • Atom microprocessor and chipset revenue was down 19 percent
  • Average selling price for microprocessors was slightly up, but only when counting Atoms; otherwise, they were flat
Digging further into the financials offers some additional insight. On the PC Client side, microprocessor revenue was up by about 0.5 percent. Chipset and motherboard revenue was down by about 0.6 percent. It was pretty much a wash.

However, there's a shift within that segment. Atom-related products, which target the netbook market, saw revenue drop 19 percent even as the average selling price increased. Unit sales must be significantly off, suggesting that consumers are becoming less enamored of netbooks.

These devices are cheap and functional, but it looks like consumers are either shifting back toward more traditional PCs or, as I suspect is happening, they are using smartphones instead. For short emails, functional web surfing, and the like, smartphones are a substitute, and the cost is hidden by subsidies from carriers. Consumers don't care because they'd pay for mobile service anyway. It makes you wonder if the tablet format might be another candidate for a quick rush to be followed by disappointment.

The bad news for netbooks is actually good news for Intel's PC and laptop business. PC Client sales were up a bit though prices were flat.

However, life in large corporate IT departments isn't so good. Even if companies replaced desktops and laptops -- and corporate IT purchases are likely only equipment replacement and not expansion -- the Data Center group saw an 8.9 percent drop in microprocessor revenue. Given flat microprocessor average sales prices without the Atom, unless there is a significant imbalance between desktop and server CPU price trends, the numbers suggest that Intel sold fewer server chips.

So if Intel's results are regarded as a bellwether, it's fair to say that things are improving somewhat. But the good times are far from rolling.

Original chip image, Intel. Photo manipulation, Erik Sherman

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.