Last summer, Contra Costa County released a pair of desktop computer bids designed to boost competition among microprocessor manufacturers and potentially generate savings of several hundred dollars per PC. Instead, the county got a lesson in the computer industry's supply chain dynamics.
The idea was simple enough: Contra Costa released two bids for several hundred personal computers. One specified machines equipped with Intel Pentium microprocessors, the other with comparable AMD Athlon chips. County officials intended to compare the bid responses head-to-head and choose the best deal. In the end, however, the jurisdiction received no response to the AMD-based bid request, leaving it with nothing to compare.
"It's like we threw this big party and these guys didn't show up for the dance," said Contra Costa CIO Steve Steinbrecher. "I was extremely frustrated."
The problem is that AMD brand processors are hard to come by in PCs designed for the corporate market, especially among machines from tier-one manufacturers such as IBM, Compaq, Dell and Hewlett-Packard. Although AMD-equipped machines capture about 20 percent of the total PC market, nearly all of those sales flow to consumers and small businesses, according to Gartner Group. Intel Pentium processors dominate in the desktop computer models marketed toward large organizations.
That amounts to a monopoly, said Mark Moore, AMD's marketing manager for state and local government.
"The bottom line is the global microprocessor market is a closed architecture," he said. "It exhibits all the characteristics -- escalating cost, premium price structures, supply shortages -- and the only time it will become an open marketplace is when the tier-one supply chain offers multi-component selection."
Over the past year, Moore has become an evangelist for procurement changes that he contends will boost competition among microprocessor manufacturers and yield lower PC prices for government buyers. "You could buy a computer that lasts two years longer for $100 less," he said.
Government jurisdictions can generate more competition by making a few simple alterations to their PC bid requests and desktop IT policies, Moore said. Current policies often stifle competition among microprocessor manufacturers by specifying Intel's Pentium chip, either explicitly or implicitly, he said.
Even bid requests that appear processor-neutral may not be, Moore contends. These documents often specify equipment containing Intel Pentium processors "or equivalent" -- language that simply doesn't provide enough incentive for major computer manufacturers to build corporate machines based on competing processors, he said. Therefore, AMD is trying to convince jurisdictions to ask for two quotes from PC manufacturers, one for Intel-based machines and another for PCs based on AMD's Athlon technology.
Moore calls the process "open-architecture bidding," and he says it's easy to implement. "What we did was take the same bid that governments currently use and put in two key words -- one is 'and' instead of 'or' and the other is 'AMD.' So when you put this bid on the street, it says give me an Intel price and an AMD price," he said. "We're not saying 'buy AMD.' We're just saying change the words to maximize competitive tension in the marketplace."
A few jurisdictions appear to be giving the technique a try. Contra Costa County's unsuccessful attempt consisted of two separate PC bids released over the summer. One specified machines containing Intel's Pentium III, 733 MHz microprocessor; the other specified AMD's 1 GHz Athlon microprocessor. More recently, New Mexico's Information Technology Management Office and California's Secretary for Education revised their minimum requirements for desktop PCs to include AMD's Athlon chip in addition to Intel's Pentium III.
Will It Work?
Whether these changes will yield more competition remains open to debate. Intel contends AMD's poor performance in the corporate market stems from customer preference rather than flawed bidding practices and other barriers.
Pentium chips represent proven reliability and performance to CIOs in large government organizations, said Intel spokesman George Alfs. "Corporate buyers historically have liked Intel platforms because you get the whole thing: the CPU, the motherboard, the software stack. It's all Intel and it all works together," he said. "Corporate IT is much more comfortable with the full Intel stack."
CIOs are unlikely to trade that comfort for a small price cut on PCs, Alfs said. "One thing to remember is the prices on client desktop systems have come down so much that there's plenty of inexpensive hardware to be had with a lot of performance. The IT managers I talk to are concerned about infrastructure compatibility and reliability."
Gartner analyst Mark Margevicius said AMD faces several challenges to capturing a bigger slice of the corporate computing market.
Even though Intel doesn't sell chips to end-users, the firm has created huge brand awareness among corporate buyers through its "Intel Inside" advertising campaign, he said. Thus many of those customers prefer the Intel name.
"No one ever got fired for buying from Intel. So from a CIO's perspective it's the safer choice," he said. "The brand is a big deal. [AMD] has to create desire for their platform."
Computer manufacturers also see little reason to commit the time and resources needed to develop and build AMD-based corporate PCs, given the current market conditions, he added. "What they get out of AMD doesn't differ a lot from what they get from Intel. So they need to decide why to do this if there's not much of a value proposition."
Part of that equation also includes reluctance among manufacturers to jeopardize long-standing relationships with Intel for potentially little in return. "I could see it if there were huge issues with Intel -- if the product was bad or availability was terrible or performance was lousy," said Margevicius. "But with AMD, I don't see any major differential."
Comparing Apples to Apples
Contra Costa's Steinbrecher said his jurisdiction attempted to compare Intel- and AMD-based machines after he convinced himself that the two chips offered comparable performance and reliability.
"I've absolutely satisfied myself on a number of fronts -- from software compatibility to failure rate," he said. "The only thing I would tell another CEO or CIO is go out and look at the research on the Internet. The data is there to support it."
Margevicius concurred, noting that AMD enjoys wide support among hardcore users of computer games, which represent some of the most processor-challenging PC applications. "It's not a matter of technical differentiation," he said. "AMD can tout all of the technical benefits over Intel, and they would be correct in doing so in most cases."
But technical parity is unlikely to loosen Intel's grip on the corporate market, said Margevicius. "The question is, is what's already on the market good enough, and the answer is yes."
Still, Steinbrecher anticipated that spurring competition between Intel- and AMD-based PCs could result in significant savings, regardless of which platform the county decided to buy. "By opening this up to AMD and other people, I may be able to save up to $200 per PC, and I buy 2,000 PCs a year," he said. "I can do a lot with $200,000."
Without a response to the AMD-based bid request, those savings remain unproven. However, AMD's Moore refused to call Contra County's experience a failure.
"It didn't reach critical mass, but it certainly woke up the marketplace," Moore said. He expects manufacturers to begin offering more microprocessor choices as demand for them increases. "A commercial desktop product line typically requires 200,000 units for consideration. So if you're a [computer manufacturer] and you want to build a certain type of computer, you need to see a market for 200,000 of them."
In a move to raise awareness of the issue among government policymakers, Steinbrecher will appear in a video discussing the merits of competition among microprocessor manufacturers. But although the CIO remains committed to the concept, he's less certain of when he will release another open-architecture bid.
Given his first experience, Steinbrecher wants assurance that his next attempt will generate a response.
"Unless someone can give me a pretty damn good rationale for putting my purchasing people through that, I won't do it again," Steinbrecher said. "When I believe that there is an opportunity for fair and equal competition, I will change our bids."