November 20, 2012, 3:25 PM — The retirement of Paul Otellini as CEO of the world's largest semiconductor company will mark a big shift for Otellini, but Intel's path will likely continue in its current direction, a direction he helped shape. As the industry shifted from high performance desktop PCs to handheld mobile smart devices, Otellini drove Intel to focus on efficiency over performance. Ultrabooks, tablets and mobile phones now ship with Intel inside, something that would have seemed impossible when Otellini first took the helm.
As the first non-engineer to run Intel, Otellini brought much-needed marketing chops gained from an earlier stint as Intel's Executive VP of sales and marketing. When he took the CEO job, Otellini had already been steeped in the technical intricacies of CPU product design as head of the Intel Architecture Group. During that time, Intel produced some of the highest clock speed desktop CPUs on the market under the Netburst brand. Netburst CPUs were also notorious for being extremely power hungry.
Indeed, Otellini realized from the very beginning of his tenure that high clock speeds and the biggest, baddest CPUs wouldn't lead the world's largest semiconductor company forward. From the very beginning of his stint as top dog, Otellini was more focused on product positioning than product sciencea philosophy that perfectly suited his roots in not engineering but rather (gulp) sales and marketing.
His lack of engineering background didn't prevent Intel from sending him to take charge of the as general manager of the Intel Architecture Group starting in 1998, about as engineering focused as it gets at Intel. It was a surprise move for the executive who had been Executive VP of sales and marketing. During that time, Intel produced some of the highest clock speed desktop CPUs on the market under the Netburst brand. Netburst CPUs were also notorious for being extremely power hungry.
Otellini became CEO of Intel in 2005, and that began the steady shift away from extreme clock speeds towards efficiency. At the time, a group of designers at Intel's Israeli facility had built a new CPU for laptops called the Pentium M. It was a somewhat subversive effort, and outside Intel's mainstream architecture group. Otellini took notice of the Pentium M's success, since Netburst was starting to bump up against some serious power constraints. At the time, Intel's chief competitor, AMD, had started shipping 64-bit processors that outperformed all but the very highest frequency Netburst-based processors, while using substantially less power.