How daft can embargo demands get? This daft

19 September 2008

Sooner or later it was going to come to this. Having taken a firm grip on the horizontal, a big company now wants to make sure it controls the vertical.

A few days ago, I got a message from Taiwanese foundry TSMC's European PR agency asking if I wanted to do an interview, under embargo, about an "advanced process announcement".

This could have been a number of things, either some extension to the existing 45nm processes or the advance information on 32nm*. When I got an email from the Common Platform Partner group later that day, the penny dropped. On the 30th, IBM and the gang have a seminar touting the benefits of their upcoming 32nm process. TSMC's embargo would lift the day before. Ah, it's the old "anything you can do..." PR gambit.

OK, I can live with that, I thought. So, I started to put in motion the plans for a story that would, in all likelihood, take in both. It wouldn't necessarily turn out that way, but I might as well plan for it. Given that both camps have said they will have high-k, metal-gate processes on 32nm, doing it as a head-to-head story for print, if not online, would make sense.

So, I start contacting some people, as I can't be in Santa Clara for the actual Common Platform seminar where these companies are planning to talk about 32nm. I hadn't seen any communication from IBM or Chartered at this point, so I don't know if they actually planned to time their own announcement for Monday as well, which could be possible.

However, in doing this, I break an agreement that I didn't actually knew existed until I get a second email, telling me (with my emphasis):

"The release is going to be available just beforehand and TSMC makes a total embargo request to everyone we're approaching, ie the subject matter should not be shared with anyone (including analysts or competitors) before the publication date even as part of any background research."**

When the PR rang to ask about a slot and whether this was OK, I said it was a problem as the subject matter, as far as I understood it, had already been shared. And, frankly, I wasn't about to stop trying to get hold the Common Platform people simply because TSMC didn't want it's shiny announcement tarnished.

Let's put this into perspective. TSMC holds a commanding market share in the foundry business. It has steam-rollered the competition out of the way at 65nm. The 45nm process from the Common Platform people is practically missing in action and number-two foundry UMC is, well, I'm not entirely sure where it is with an actual production-ready 45nm process. It's all gone quiet over there.

TSMC, market-wise is in a position of strength but has, it seems, in one of the cheesiest acts possible in the land of PR, scheduled a spoiler announcement ahead of a similar one from a group of smaller competitors. It's not uncommon, but I don't recall the last time anyone said, in effect: "Don't upset our spoiler by calling anyone else, not even an analyst."

What exactly is TSMC worried about? That an analyst or competitor might explain that doing something in a certain way is a bad idea? And, don't forget, this is going to be at the level of detail you can get from a half-hour phone call - you could end up with less than has already been discussed at conferences such as IEDM and VLSI Technology.

The problem is that, by putting such heavy restrictions on research - next they'll be telling us not to put certain keywords into a Google search - all you can do is parrot the spin. You can't call anyone to check whether a certain technique is viable, because that's verboten.

I should point out that I'm pretty careful about what does get relayed to a competitor while doing research under embargo: I try to keep it all very general but simply use the information I have to construct the questions. Also, checking out things ahead of the embargo lifting can help the company. I have significantly changed my construction of a story scheduled for Monday having spoken to a couple of people. The company that imposed the embargo didn't know certain things were happening and so didn't mention them, but the actions of one or two companies around this new product indicate how they feel about the launch.

But the kind of demand that has come from TSMC leads you to the point where the concept of doing an interview under embargo becomes worthless. You can't research the story in the way you know it needs to be done. So there can only be one answer.

* OK, they may be doing something crazy like skipping 32nm, but the actions of TSMC tend to suggest that the company is more concerned about looking behind the times with its announcement rather than leading the way. If you were going to scale right down to 27nm or 22nm, you would hardly be concerned what IBM and Chartered might say.

** Blacklist, here I come.

Update: TSMC has rethought. Normal embargo terms have been restored, apparently.


In TSMC's defense....well if you look at it .... see, I understand that ...

Nope. Can't for the life of me figure out what was going on in the thinking of TSMC marketing to have made these requirements. And I can't say I'm surprised either. TSMC doesn;t just hammer the competition with an iron fist, they do it to their customers, their partners, their vendors and probably ther dogs and children as well.

I remember setting up a round table discussion with several companies on a particular subject that could use input from TSMC and so I issued an invitation. They responded with a specific day, time, location, completely different subject and a new list of participants.

When asked them, as politely as I could, why they thought they could hijack my panel, the rep actually said, "Because wer are TSMC."

Since that last encounter with them I have not invited them to participate in anything I set up. I go out of my way to offer it to Chartered or EMC when I want an Asian foundry involved. When clients say they want to do a joint announcement with TSMC on any subject, I give them the litany of PR disasters that I have had with them and give them references to a half dozen other companies that have similar experiences. I know of at least two small companies that now refuse to do business with them.

I am not a fan of the journalistic blacklist, but in the case of TSMC I think it's justified.

I'm not blacklisting them: just not taking the embargo. The release will go out on Businesswire or wherever, and I'll ask about it then.

But, after this, I'm not exactly expecting to be whitelisted.