Apple ads make things awkward for Intel
Apple's new ads trash Intel's other PC-making customers. Could that hurt their relationships?
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - In its ad blitz announcing the first ever Intel-based Macs, Apple skewers PCs -- which happen to be Intel's biggest customers.
While Apple is known for controversial ads, the newest spot puts Intel in a potentially uncomfortable spot. Clearly, Intel is happy that its newest customer -- one that's especially rich on cultural cachet at the moment -- wants to celebrate the partnership, and gets some extra advertising to boot. But the commercial also takes a swing at Intel-based PCs, which some analysts believe could alienate Intel's other customers.
In the spot, an announcer intones that for years, Intel (down $0.46 to $20.74, Research) chips have been "trapped" inside "dull little boxes, dutifully performing dull little tasks," and concludes with the announcement that Intel chips have finally been "set free, and get to live life inside a Mac."
But those "dull little boxes" -- PCs -- are still Intel's bread and butter. Intel's number-one customer is Dell (up $0.26 to $29.26, Research), which exclusively uses Intel chips and it does big business with other computer makers including Hewlett-Packard (down $0.35 to $30.56, Research), Lenovo and Acer.
As "The Critic," Jon Lovitz's cranky and neurotic animated character, might have said – "How awkward!"
Intel spokeswoman Claudine Mangano declined to discuss the reaction to the commercial from Intel's other customers, including Dell and HP, citing a policy of not publicly discussing the details of relationships with their customers. She wouldn't address the issue of whether the ad created any friction, and maintained that Intel is pleased with the commercial.
"We think it's a cool ad," she said, while taking pains to point out that the commercial was created by Apple alone, without any input from Intel. "We're pleased Apple featured Intel in the ad; we think it's a great way to let people know there are new products available that feature our technology."
Apple did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
Relationships at risk
So, now that Intel's in the midst of a public love-fest with its newest customer, do its long-term customers feel they're getting the short shrift?
UBS analyst Thomas Thornhill raised this question in a recent research report. Thornhill and his team concluded that while they believe that Intel's relationship with Apple can be successful in the long run, they do think it runs the risk of alienating Intel's relationships with PC makers.
They hasten to add that while the risk is probably minimal, it underscores an increased level of complexity that Intel faces in managing relationships with its core customers now that Apple has entered into the mix.
"While we are encouraged by Apple's embrace of Intel chips, we also see the potential for the mutual embrace by the two companies to cause some awkward moments (at least initially)," the analysts wrote. For example, they noted that it seems a bit unusual that Core Duo-based systems were available to Apple users before they were available to other major Intel customers like Dell and Hewlett-Packard.
The analysts noted that Apple's PC-slamming ad "may not exactly be the kind of 'free' publicity Intel was looking for," and they added that Intel's revelation at Macworld that it has 1,000 employees dedicated to supporting Apple may have raised the ire of Intel's PC-making customers.
For its part, Dell shrugged off the ad.
"As far as their marketing goes, that's marketing," said Dell spokesman Jess Blackburn. "We continue to have a very solid relationship with Intel and nothing has changed in that respect. We probably are their largest customer; we shipped 10 million systems in the fourth quarter. I don't think any supplier is going to ignore a customer that is building that many systems and using that many of their parts in them."
Cody Acree, an analyst with Stifel, Nicolaus & Company, said that unless Intel's relationship with Apple somehow changes the terms of Intel's agreements with other computer makers – which he thinks is unlikely – the pairing probably won't have much impact on Apple's rivals.
"Dell gets some pretty significant pricing incentives for being an Intel customer," said Acree, adding that as long as Intel's relationships with new partners don't affect the pricing breaks Dell gets, "It probably doesn't bother them."
Roger Kay, an analyst with independent research firm Endpoint Technologies, added that as a partner, Apple, is more experimental than some of Intel's other partners.
While this can translate into edgy ads, it also means Apple may forge ahead with digital home technologies using Intel technology. So whether it turns out to be PC makers or Apple that win the digital living room race, Intel will be a part of it.
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Acree does not own shares of Intel, but Stifel Nicolaus has a non-investment banking relationship with the company. Endpoint's Kay does not own shares of Intel or Apple. UBS has a non-investment banking relationship with Intel, but Thornhill does not own shares of the company.