It’s no secret that Intel’s 10nm process has been bedeviled by delays and problems — the node is years late already, and it may not debut at volume until Q4 2019. But new media reports suggest that Intel has cancelled the node completely, while Intel itself denies that charge.
The claim is from SemiAccurate, which writes that “Now we are hearing from trusted moles that the process is indeed dead and that is a good thing for Intel, if they had continued along their current path the disaster would have been untenable. Our moles are saying the deed has finally been done.” SemiAccurate has indeed been predicting that Intel would cancel or substantially revise its 10nm node with less aggressive targets for ramping it.
Intel contests this claim:
Media reports published today that Intel is ending work on the 10nm process are untrue. We are making good progress on 10nm. Yields are improving consistent with the timeline we shared during our last earnings report.
— Intel News (@intelnews) October 22, 2018
Unfortunately, it’s not possible to see the actual evidence SemiAccurate provides (archival link, the site is down) for its argument because that information is subscriber-only. It’s difficult, therefore, to test the evaluated claims. But the better question to ask, given the paucity of information, is this: Regardless of whether Intel canceled its previous 10nm process, would Intel walk away from being a leading-edge foundry? And the answer there is an obvious “No.”
There is a multitude of reasons why Intel won’t accept this outcome, starting with the fact that it’s tantamount to ceding future progression to outside companies. And in this context, ” canceling” 10nm could mean something more akin to “drawing up a new plan for future node progression” as opposed to “walking away from the leading edge forever,” even assuming SemiAccurate’s rumors are correct. There’s too much at stake as far as Intel’s perceived manufacturing prowess. Leading edge development is simply too important to the company to quit.
If the SA rumor is right, we’ll likely hear about it before long. Intel, having previously repeatedly committed to a 10nm ramp in Q4 2019 will have to publicly notify its partners and investors about any delay, just as it notified them about the previous ones. The more likely course of action would be for Intel to still push forward with a “10nm” node with different characteristics — possibly one more relaxed than the company’s incredibly ambitious hyperscaling project, which seemed a tough approach when it was proposed back in 2017 and hasn’t managed to launch since. Intel’s original 10nm slideshows and our commentary from its launch day are both embedded below:
Since most people don’t know the difference between different nodes or node-types, Intel can slide an updated process node into place and call it 10nm. Node names are basically marketing titles these days, so the substitution would go unnoticed among the general public — and if the new node’s performance is good enough, it could go largely unremarked among the technical press as well, beyond reports of the differences as a matter of factual accuracy.
Our final thought is this. While it’s true that Intel’s 10nm slips have already been unprecedented, regardless of whether this rumor is true, these problems do generally fit the theory we’ve talked about over the years: Specifically, node slips and problematic improvement cycles were going to become more normal than they used to be, as the difficulty of further improvement only grew. Intel isn’t the company we expected to slam into these problems first, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t real.
That doesn’t mean Intel hasn’t made mistakes throughout this process. But it does make those mistakes intrinsically more likely to occur.
Now Read: Intel Core i9-9900K Review: Welcome to an Intel-AMD 8-Core Slugfest, Intel May Have 10nm Hardware In-Market Faster Than Expected, and Intel Faces 14nm Shortage As CPU Prices Rise