IBM (IBM) is considering putting its semiconductor unit up for sale, some two weeks after unloading its x86 server arm for $2.3 billion to Chinese PC giant Lenovo, according to reports in the Financial Times and other outlets.
So far no clear suitors for the unit have emerged and it’s possible IBM, which is said to want to retain its chip designing facilities, may back away from offering it and seek a partner instead. Still, the vendor has enlisted Goldman Sachs to find interested parties with possible candidates including GlobalFoundaries and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC), although there is no word to this point if either has talked to IBM.
One problem inherent in finding a buyer is the fact that there are only a few companies worldwide that can absorb the billions in capital required and have the fortitude to withstand the unpredictable nature of the silicon business. It’s no accident that old-line companies dominate that sector of the industry.
It’s unclear how much IBM might ask for the semiconductor business. A report in the Wall Street Journal quoted investment house Sanford Bernstein as estimating the unit produced about $1.75 billion in sales last year and lost $130 million in pretax figures. It forecast a similar $130 million in pretax losses this year but on 17 percent less revenue.
Divesting itself of unprofitable assets isn’t new for IBM by any means. Indeed, following the x86 divestiture word surfaced last week that IBM may be interested in selling off its networking and software-defined-networking (SDN) business for $1 billion.
But selling its semiconductor unit not only would cement its path away from hardware reliance but also signal the vendor had firmly thrown in its lot with cloud services and software.
Is IBM willing to take that huge a risk in areas in which it’s still struggling to gain equal footing with competitors?
After the Lenovo x86 deal closes, IBM will be left only with mainframe and high-end server manufacturing based on its own chips, leaving it to rely heavily on sales to outside customers to make ends meet with the unit. And, with the cost to build new fabs spiking to the billions of dollars, IBM’s return on investment may never rise to where it needs to be for the vendor to continue making silicon.
On the other hand, as pointed out in the Financial Times’ report, much of IBM’s intellectual property is associated with semiconductor technology and its most powerful chips drive its advanced computing applications such as its much-promoted Watson supercomputer.
And there's the rub.