Marcus Brauchli is a former executive editor of The Washington Post and managing editor of the Wall Street Journal.
In journalist Michael S. Malone’s telling, the world’s most important company is audaciously innovative, viciously competitive and boundlessly visionary, leaping from success to success as it upends and reshapes industries. If you are 30 or younger, though, you may have trouble guessing this particular technology company’s identity. At the barricades of the mobile revolution, where cellphones and tablets inspire the masses, its name is seldom mentioned. The do-no-wrong industrial insurgent that Malone idolizes in his new Silicon Valley corporate history largely missed out on those movements.
I know this because, while reading Malone’s lively if frequently hyperbolic “The Intel Trinity,” I happened to be at a conference where Intel’s current leader was onstage, explaining its slip-up. “Companies make mistakes,” Brian Krzanich, Intel’s graying and genial chief executive, told an audience of mostly younger technologists in May at the Re/code conference in California. After leading the transformation of computing from mainframes to personal computers to laptops, the company “wanted it to stop there,” Krzanich admitted. “But the market kept moving.”
And that, in fact, is the theme that pulses through Malone’s book. In the half-century since Intel’s visionary founders joined the workforce, the pace of technological change has only accelerated, creating — and almost as quickly rendering obsolete — inventions, companies, even industries. For more than a generation, the company that best managed those forces was Intel.
Intel sat “at the center of the world’s economy, the multi-billion-dollar corporation on which the entire electronics revolution would rest,” Malone writes. Far from wanting technology to stop evolving, Intel invested massively in research and development, pushing the boundaries not only of technology but of the technology business.
Its founding engineers helped pioneer the silicon-based memory chips from which California’s storied Silicon Valley drew its name, then assembled the team that pretty much invented the microprocessors that enabled the creation of personal computers and the computer-driven era we live in today. So far ahead of the curve was Intel that it often had to educate its customers in how to deploy its technologies.
In business, too, Intel was an innovator. It offered its users services and customization, not just off-the-shelf, mass-produced products, and understood the importance of cannibalizing its own products to adopt new technologies and create new businesses.
Success brought challenges: Intel outmaneuvered American and Japanese copycat manufacturers, sweated out prolonged economic downcycles, and became a fulcrum of U.S. trade policy for years. Yet it always survived, strengthened.
Businesses, ultimately, are manifestations of their people and especially their leaders. Intel was emphatically so. The vision that drove the company was that of three men, all of them legendary in Silicon Valley, whose intertwined stories form the narrative spine of Malone’s book. “There is . . . something almost biblical about the relationship,” Malone suggests, “an unholy Trinity.”
The company’s founder and the “Father” of Malone’s minor heresy, Robert Noyce, was a charismatic and charming skier, pilot and brilliant engineer who forged Intel’s original team in 1968 from among his colleagues at an earlier technology enterprise he’d created, Fairchild Semiconductor. Chief among them was Gordon Moore, another surpassingly smart engineer, who in 1965 wrote a paper laying out what became known as “Moore’s Law,” the observation that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit would double every two years. The recognition that processing speeds or memory could increase at that exponential rate enabled Intel to plan and roll out new technologies at a faster pace than its rivals.
Moore also was the guardian of the third of Intel’s great leaders, Andrew Grove, a strong-willed and sometimes irascible Hungarian-born engineer who was brought to Intel after its founding and eventually oversaw the company’s greatest growth. While Noyce and Moore got much credit — and enormous wealth — for founding Intel, it was Grove’s ferocious drive that propelled the company to quickly commercialize new technologies, shed old ones and become dominant in computing.
At the center of the book is the running friction between Noyce and Grove. Grove respected Noyce but disdained his leadership style. “Grove was the brilliant but truculent Son in a perpetual Oedipal battle with Noyce,” Malone writes. They clashed repeatedly; Moore provided the buffer that allowed both men to exercise their wills and Intel to flourish.
Each of these men is worthy of a biography; Grove wrote his own, “Only the Paranoid Survive,” an important and powerful memoir of life in the 20th century. Malone sets this new book apart by focusing on the interactions among the trio, illuminating the frictions inside Intel. He is careful to credit the many other engineers who helped build Intel into the first Silicon Valley company to achieve a stock market value of half a trillion dollars.
Those stories often give the book a discursive, meandering feel that Malone accentuates with declarations of the importance of every matter, great or small. When an Intel customer doesn’t insist on exclusive rights to a new Intel technology, Malone characterizes it as “one of the biggest business mistakes of the century.” The death of Noyce in 1990 was a shock, Malone writes, but then adds: “There has never been as devastating a piece of news before or since in the Valley.”
Malone is a technology enthusiast; indeed, his other book titles seem to leave little space for the importance he ascribes to Intel: “Bill & Dave: How Hewlett and Packard Built the World’s Greatest Company” and “Infinite Loop: How Apple, the World’s Most Insanely Great Computer Company, Went Insane.” Readers may be stymied by Malone’s inside-the-Valley use of techno-jargon that often omits plain-English explanations for some of the most significant advances he describes. (He includes a “Tutorial on Technology” as an appendix, which is useful for understanding where technology is going but less so for where it has been.)
But most problematic for both Malone and Intel is the abbreviated denouement to this book: When Krzanich became chief executive in 2013, after 31 years at the company, Intel had less than 1 percent of the mobile market, the new business segment dominated by companies like Apple and Samsung.
That raises perhaps the most profound unanswered question of the book and of Silicon Valley’s past half-century: How is it that even the most agile and powerful companies falter and lose the cadence of innovation that made them great? Malone doesn’t offer an answer. What he has produced is popular history, the tale of an epoch-defining industrial romp and the three men who led it.
THE INTEL TRINITY
How Robert Noyce, Gordon Moore, and Andy Grove Built the World’s Most Important Company
By Michael S. Malone
Harper Business. 541 pp. $34.99