Makers of the world’s most advanced graphics cards — the hardware that lets gamers experience photorealistic action and immersive virtual reality — have had a hell of a year. In August, market leader Nvidia announced a 56% rise in year-over-year revenue. Competitor AMD’s revenue saw an 18% rise over the same period.
But neither company has been eager to crow about what’s driving all that growth, and investors haven’t exactly been overjoyed about it.
Why? The answer is one word long: Bitcoin.
Actually, it’s a little longer than that. Graphics cards (also known as GPUs) were once used to ‘mine’ Bitcoin, or solve the cryptographic riddles that effectively secure billions of dollars worth of virtual currency in exchange for digital cash. That’s no longer true, with Bitcoin now mostly mined using a more specialized chipset known as an ASIC — and on an increasingly industrial scale.
But, as Bitcoin’s price has skyrocketed this year, dozens of lesser-known cryptocurrencies have also become more and more valuable. And those blockchains – including Litecoin, Monero, and, especially, Ethereum – can still be profitably mined by part-timers using off-the-shelf graphics cards. In locales with cheap electricity, a single card can generate roughly a hundred dollars in profits per month.
That has led to huge demand for graphics cards. Nvidia said it made around $150 million last quarter off miners. Analysts speaking to CoinDesk estimated that a sizable proportion of AMD’s revenue is also now coming from miners.
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But investors haven’t been eager to pile into the stocks, precisely because of their dependence on cryptocurrency. Despite the rising value of Bitcoin and others, the space is still very speculative, with actual working applications for blockchain tech relatively rare.
To put the risk in perspective, CoinDesk looked back to 2013, when the bottom dropped out of Bitcoin’s price. Miners, still using GPUs at the time, quickly dumped their hardware on eBay. AMD’s sales slumped drastically in the following year, before slowly recovering in 2015.
Though the cryptocurrency ecosystem is much more robust today than it was in 2013, the bubble could certainly pop again, making mining unprofitable and putting chipmakers against a wall. An even clearer mid-term risk is that Ethereum, the second most valuable cryptocurrency, is trying to move away from hardware-dependent security.
But there’s potential upside, too. If and when cryptocurrency becomes truly widely adopted, AMD and Nvidia may have lucked into a large new market. The potential is suggested by a thriving traffic in guides and tools to help new would-be miners set up rigs in their bedrooms, calculate their potential profits, and manage their digital assets.
When exactly to fully embrace that market, at the risk of appearing too bubble-dependent, will be a tricky question for GPU makers.