An insider’s view of AMD’s war with Intel

May 2, 2013, 3:25 PM UTC

FORTUNE — From 2004 to 2009, Advanced Micro Devices, the perpetual underdog semiconductor manufacturer, launched worldwide antitrust litigation against its much admired, much feared, near monopolist competitor, Intel. In submissions to competition authorities and courts, AMD charged that Intel was breaking the law to preserve its dominant market share for so-called x86 microprocessors, the brains that run most personal computers.

This audacious, historic assault was led by an incongruously unprepossessing man, Hector Ruiz, who served as AMD’s (AMD) CEO from 2002 to 2008. Last month Ruiz, 67, published a book about the experience, called Slingshot: AMD’s Fight to Free an Industry From the Ruthless Grip of Intel.

Legally, the outcome of AMD’s assault was as decisive as these things get. After examining the evidence, at least six government regulatory bodies, representing some 30 nations, agreed with AMD. From about 2001 to 2007, they concluded, Intel (INTC) had engaged in a wide range of abusive practices to preserve its 80% to 85% market share during a period when AMD’s product offerings — especially its Opteron chip for enterprise servers — were widely seen as technically superior to Intel’s. Intel was paying computer makers to abjure AMD chips entirely or to constrict their usage to tiny, backwater portions of their business, the regulators found. Intel allegedly made such payments to Dell (DELL), IBM (IBM), Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), Lenovo, Acer, NEC, Toshiba, Sony (SNE), Hitachi, Fujitsu, Samsung, Sambo Computer, and Europe’s largest computer retailing chain, Media Markt. (Wounded in the collateral damage, computer maker Dell eventually also had to cough up $100 million to settle charges brought by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, which alleged that Dell misled its shareholders by failing to tell them that the only reason Dell was able to meet its quarterly numbers for 20 consecutive quarters was the $6 billion in funds Intel was paying it to not use AMD chips.)

Intel never admitted any wrongdoing of any kind. Nor did Dell. Intel did, however, sign multiple consent decrees, and it paid some hefty speeding tickets, including $1.45 billion to the European Commission (the largest fine that body has ever imposed); $1.25 billion to settle AMD’s civil suit; and $1.5 billion to settle litigation with graphics chip maker Nvidia (NVDA), another alleged victim of anticompetitive conduct.

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At the same time, the business impact of AMD’s litigation is extremely murky, as are the lessons that should be drawn from it by other C-suite officials, analysts, and business school professors. The market environment never holds still while an antitrust suit plays out, and that was especially true in this case. While Intel and AMD slugged it out, the smartphone and tablet revolution took place largely without them, diminishing the stature of both companies.

Today, almost four years after the litigation ended, Intel still controls about 80% to 85% of the x86 chip market. Ruiz, who left AMD in 2008, admits disappointment with the “paltry” $1.25 billion in cash (plus other consideration) that the company finally received from Intel in November 2009. He finds more vindication, though, in the consent decree the U.S. Federal Trade Commission wrangled from Intel in August 2010, which banned Intel prospectively from engaging in the abusive practices which AMD claims it resorted to in the past.

Ruiz was born poor in Piedras Negras, a Mexican village across the Rio Grande from Eagle Pass, Texas. A coal-mining town, it drew its name from the “black rocks … that had made a few lucky people rich,” Ruiz writes. Ruiz’s family was not among those lucky few, so his rise to become CEO of one of Silicon Valley’s most significant companies is inspirational. The title of Ruiz’s book, Slingshot, references Project Slingshot, AMD’s in-house term for its David and Goliath battle against Intel. It’s also a reference to Ruiz’s humble childhood, during which he learned to use slingshots made “in the biblical style: with a pocket of leather looped with a string.”

Unlike many Silicon Valley heros, Ruiz is no brash, flashy, wunderkind who dropped out of college to found his own company. He is, rather, someone who through hard work, formidable will, and patient perseverance, earned a Ph.D. in electrical engineering at Rice University, became a U.S. citizen, and worked his way up the ladders at Texas Instruments and Motorola until, in 2000, at age 55, AMD hired him as chief operating officer and heir apparent to its more charismatic founder, Jerry Sanders.

In style as well as substance, then, Ruiz is an engineer and manager, not an entrepreneur. Neither he nor his writing are witty or incandescent; they are straightforward, clear, understated, and a bit plodding. He evinces passion, but it is tightly reined in. (The book is written with Lauren Villagran, a Mexico City-based journalist who writes for the Christian Science Monitor.)

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Slingshot provides a CEO’s-eye view of AMD’s war with Intel, which is, of course, very different from a litigator’s. If you are hoping to learn fresh details of AMD’s legal battle, this is not the book for you. In fact, under the terms of a very broad gag order imposed upon the litigators by U.S. District Judge Joseph Farnan, Jr., who presided over AMD’s civil suit against Intel in Delaware, Ruiz was, just like the press, kept largely in the dark about the evidence as it emerged during the first four years of litigation. Cracks did not appear in this judicially imposed cone of silence until May 2009, when the European Commission leveled its fine against Intel and then, four months later, issued a (still heavily redacted) 542-page opinion. The cone was at last more seriously compromised in November 2009, when then-New York State attorney general Andrew Cuomo filed his own tell-all, email-laden complaint against Intel, doing an end-run around Judge Farnan’s strictures. (Though Ruiz doesn’t discuss it, in my humble opinion Judge Farnan’s gag order was both severely overbroad and crucial to Intel’s long holdout against AMD. It very nearly converted the most important competition litigation of the decade into de facto private arbitration — inexplicably funded by taxpayers.)

On the other hand, if the reader wants to know what it’s like to be the CEO of a public corporation when it decides to go to the mattresses against a gigantic competitor; and when it simultaneously incurs debt to make a huge strategic acquisition (purchasing graphics chipmaker ATI for $5.6 billion); and when it exacerbates its resulting financial squeeze with a serious unforced error (a design flaw in Opteron’s successor, the Barcelona chip); and when it narrowly averts bankruptcy by pulling off a massive restructuring (obtaining financing from Abu Dhabi investors to spin off all its chip fabrication plants into a new stand-alone company, GlobalFoundries); then this book will provide some compelling and provocative reading.

The book does not, alas, teach many vivid lessons. The narrative flow is also tripped up by some notable omissions and unpersuasive inclusions. When Ruiz was negotiating the GlobalFoundries spinoff, for instance, he needed to address certain licensing issues with IBM. The executive he dealt with there was Robert Moffat, who, as it happened, was then having an affair with femme fatale Danielle Chiesi, who was, in turn, leaking material inside information to Galleon hedge fund manager Raj Rajaratnam. (Moffat and Chiesi later pled guilty. Rajaratnam was convicted in 2011, and has appealed.) Ruiz was never charged with wrongdoing, but the government’s sentencing memorandum for Chiesi alleged that she also obtained inside information from Ruiz. Ruiz mentions none of this in the book. (In an interview he says, “The association of my name in the media with that was a terribly unfair thing to do … There was never an allegation of wrongdoing made against me by any authority, and I believe that I always acted in good faith and in the best interests of AMD. But I got dragged into a media frenzy.”

The description of Ruiz’s departure from AMD is also unsatisfying. During the summer of 2008, with negotiations over the foundry spinoff stalled, Giuliano Meroni, AMD’s then president for Europe, Middle East, and Africa, told Ruiz that the Abu Dhabi investors “are worried that once we do this deal, you will leave them, and they will be on their own.” Meroni then suggested, as Ruiz recounts it, “If you tell them that you’ll go with them — you’ll join the new foundry company — that will end their worries.” Ruiz saw that Meroni was right, offered to go to GlobalFoundries to ensure that the deal went through, and thereby saved AMD from a possible bankruptcy filing, Ruiz writes.

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In July 2008, when AMD announced its seventh consecutive quarterly loss, it also announced that Ruiz would step down as CEO, though he remained as AMD chairman. The impending Abu Dhabi deal would not become public till March 2009. Accordingly, the press wrote — unfairly in Ruiz’s view — that AMD had “ousted” Ruiz as CEO, Ruiz recounts, when “the reality was something much more cooperative, complex, and premeditated.” He suppressed “the urge to publicly fight back,” he writes, remembering his father’s advice: “If you argue with a fool, no one will know who the fool is.”

Still, the reader wonders why having Ruiz become GlobalFoundries’s nonexecutive chairman was so pivotal to the Abu Dhabi investors’ willingness to go forward. Ruiz stayed there only eight months. His departure from that company is also omitted from the book. (In an interview Ruiz says, “My work there was completed.”) So had Ruiz’s departure from AMD really been the selfless act that cinched the deal that saved AMD from bankruptcy? Or had Meroni just found a diplomatic way to finesse Ruiz’s ouster in a way that preserved Ruiz’s pride?

The next book I’d like to read about Ruiz’s tenure at AMD would be one written by Meroni.

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