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Exclusive Trinity interview with AMD VP Leslie Sobon

From the point where Intel launched Conroe, AMD has had some serious challenges in the desktop processor market. Now, speaking as the head of the desktop business team on the eve of the launch of Trinity, Leslie Sobon seems quietly confident of her company’s ability to grow its market share. KitGuru examines her words carefully to see if that confidence is well placed.

In 1988, Yaz topped the charts with ‘the only way is up’ and, right now, that’s how AMD’s new management team must feel. But with its share price at $3.32 at the time of writing, any ambition that AMD has of hitting $12 by the end of 2013 will mean it needs to hit-hit-hit its roadmap and hope that the global economy finally drags itself out of the doldrums.

When we fired in our questions, we wanted to understand (a) how AMD sees the market overall, (b) whether it feels it can match Intel well enough to take market share, (c) how much of a benefit the new Trinity APUs will be and (d) can AMD get the market to look at its products differently – to be more enthusiastic about the range.

“The churn that we’re seeing in the market right now, is between notebooks and tablets”, Leslie explains. “We’re seeing a stabilisation of the desktop market overall, with a slight downturn in towers alongside a pick up for all-in-one products”.

Leslie Sobon is one of a group of very successful women showing that anything is possible in the technology world - as long as you have the skill, determination and experience. During her interview, she came across as confident and realistic - which is a good balance to have if you're ultimate aim is 'credibility'.

We brought up the dilution we’re seeing with Intel’s processor brands in the high street. Specifically, that if one of your friends tells you they ‘Bought an Intel laptop for £450’ ($600), there’s no way on earth you can know which processor is inside. Right now, if you visit a technology store with a good selection of notebooks, you seems you can find Celeron, original Pentiums, newer Pentiums, early dual core, original Core or second or third generation Core.

In other words, there’s no way of knowing what processor, what architecture or speed you’re buying. All you can be sure of is that it will have an Intel logo. Which presents an issue when you’re trying to push people to buy Ultrabooks for £1,500 and consumers think, “Yes, but I can get an Intel notebook for £400”.

We put this to Leslie.

“Here’s the big challenge”, she said – picking up her ultra thin Samsung laptop with an AMD processor inside. “Consumers are not really aware of the technology inside a device like this. They like the styling and trust the brand, for example Samsung, but most people won’t have any idea which processor is powering the device”.

“For AMD, this is a huge benefit moving forward”, she said “We have no hill to protect, so we’re fighting on a much more level playing field than we would have been in the past, where the majority of the market was desktop based”.

Having seen positive data about the overall growth of the market in 2013/14 from IDC at the start of the year, Leslie commented on the predicted increase in market sizes/demand, “We hope so. But it’s very much in the hands of the overall economy as well – factors that are outside of the industry’s control”.

Whatever the overall market does, all the data that KitGuru has seen shows that there is a very definite bulge in demand for solutions that cost less than £500. At that price point, integrated graphics is going to be what the vast majority of users will experience. We asked Leslie about Intel’s ability to compete on graphics in that space.

“They simply don’t have the IP or experience”, she replied firmly. “Realistically, only AMD and nVidia have the graphics knowledge necessary which makes AMD’s APU a perfect choice”.

“Intel can pick and choose a few battles to fight, one or two benchmarks to focus on with clever accelerators, but overall they can’t win in the real world and that is not going to change any time soon”.

Fighting talk. If only we had an Intel representative around to push into Leslie and get a proper fight going. Damn. Maybe next time.

Samsung found it very easy to 'Ultrabook' the APU for the mobile market, but will system builders create equally interesting products in the desktop space? Leslie hopes so.

While AMD has traditionally done better with games and gaming on its integrated processors (APUs), the professional applications haven’t shown much love. We asked Leslie if this was changing.

“Sure, especially if you look at something like Adobe CS6”, she replied. “We’re seeing great acceleration on AMD’s APU family with Adobe’s latest products – something that you simply don’t get from an i3”. We’ve made a note and will visit this in the KitGuru Labs soon enough.

Given all the focus on gaming tests, you have to assume that it won’t win a toe-to-toe battle in the middle of the ring on CPU-heavy tests. We’ll see on the day of launch. But that brings up Windows 8 which, as far as we can tell, is a little lighter on its resource usage than Windows 7. We asked Leslie about the new OS and what difference it might make.

“We don’t mind at AMD, we’re happy with both operating systems”, she explained. “We’re much more interested in the graphical user experience. Anything that brings a system to life with advanced graphics, is a good thing for us”.

She added, “That said, whenever there is a fundamental change in the market, it always favours the underdog. So, in that sense, a new operating system arriving to upset the balance is a good thing”.

We touched briefly on the new mainboard socket for Trinity, the FM2, and were told, “It’s purely about longevity. Giving all of our customers the confidence to know that this socket is here to stay for some time to come”.

While there were a lot of positives on the day around AMD’s new Trinity product, we need to be realistic. Part of that realism means asking about some of the woeful execution that APUs have suffered from in the past – alongside the urge AMD has always had to launch cost-effective processors with ultra-high-spec mainboards that completely change the price comparison against Intel.

“We believe that our multi-FAB partner strategy will yield great benefits going forward”, said Leslie. “We learned a lot from earlier launches. It was tough to get it right, when the process was new and the chips themselves were both elegant and complex”.

“With Trinity, we have experienced a very smooth passage from design to production to delivery”, she explained. “We have plenty of product, we’re ready to go to market and – for the first time – we will be launching a full range of chips and mainboards on day one. You won’t have to pair a low cost Trinity processor with an expensive mainboard unless you want to. System builders who want to launch with a very cost effective PC can do so easily, from day one”.

We asked if mainstream desktop processors would also benefit from the ability to be paired with cost-effective mainboards in the future and she confirmed that this would be the case. Makes perfect sense to us.

Whenever we speak with the channel, there is always disappointment that AMD has spent the past few years focusing so much on cores and not so much on what each core will actually deliver. We asked how Leslie plans to get around this with AMD’s engineering team.

“Well the rally multi-core processors are derived from our programmes for the server and workstation market, where multiple cores are a real advantage”, she told us. “Depending on which applications you use on a desktop, the sweetspot for most users is between 2 cores and 4 cores. We will be working more with software developers in the future to enable the advantages of multi-core processors – but we will also make sure that our engineers are focused on creating processors that exactly match what our customers need”.

The advantage here is immediately obvious. Not only might you end up with simpler designs as a direct benefit, but those chips would be easier to spin-up to production and easier to produce in volume. Three cheers for engineers who start with ‘What customers want’ and not ‘What cool stuff can we insert to show off with’.

Having landed in Moscow and then spent the week delivering her Trinity message across Europe, we would not Leslie leave our sun-baked shores without asking her some of the KitGuru background questions.

So when did you join AMD?
“I came across from Dell in 2006”

What was the first computer you ever owned?
“Wow. It was one of those tiny little Apple Macs, you know, the original ones with the little floppy in the front and the tiny screen. These days, you can almost get a bigger screen on a smartphone!”

If you could drive down a Pacific highway in any car, with anyone in the passenger seat and anything playing on the radio, what would that combination be?
“Easy. Champagne-coloured Mercedes convertible from the mid-seventies with my dog Olive and Elton John on the radio – but the good stuff – the early stuff”.

If you invited friends over and wanted to impress them with your cooking, what would you serve?
“Pop Tarts. You have those here, right?  Man, I hate cooking, it’s the one thing I can’t do. If I liked the people, I would serve Pop Tarts because I can’t get them wrong”.

What about outdoors. What food always tastes better in a restaurant?
“Everything apart from Pop Tarts”.

Finally, if you could invent one thing – what would it be?
“Easy. Shoes that change colour according to what I’m wearing!”

We have it on good authority that if you insert Leslie, her dog and Elton John into the car - alongside a pack of Pop Tarts - you have the recipe for success. Whatever happened to that 'Apple' company we wonder?

KitGuru says: We’d like to extend a big thank you to Leslie for answering our questions. The new Trinity launch is interesting because it comes at a time when the entire structure of AMD is undergoing a huge transformation. APU products work well in a low-cost desktop environment – which is a market that’s alive and kicking in China, India, South America and several other major population areas around the globe. Can AMD move the fight to these markets and win big enough to pull the rest of the company along with it?  That’s the challenge for the lady running desktop.

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