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Summary:

As smartphone adoption surpasses traditional computer sales, Intel’s time to crack the mobile market continues to expire. Losing Nokia’s focus on MeeGo hasn’t helped, so at this point, Google’s Android platform may be the chipmaker’s best bet, even though that solution is a long shot too.

android-atom

If you could peek inside your smartphone, you’d see an array of circuitry and technology from a dozen or more companies. One common denominator applies to nearly all these handsets however: Virtually all of them run on processors built upon the ARM architecture. That may not seem important to consumers, but it sure does to Intel. Even though the company sells more chips for servers and traditional computers than anyone else, it has yet to crack into the mobile market. By supporting Google’s Android platform, however, Intel hopes to create a new window of opportunity.

It’s a Mobile World

Intel’s concern about this mobile paradigm shift becomes evident when comparing recent sales data from the global computer and smartphone markets. Analyst firms may disagree on the exact timing of it, but sometime around the beginning of this year, smartphones outsold computers for the first time. The trend is only going to continue because of the roughly 5 billion handsets in use today, not even a billion are smartphones. Put another way: There’s far more growth potential in the handheld market, and chips for that market, as the population migrates to mobile services. And even worse: Microsoft has demonstrated a version of Windows that can run on ARM-based chips, so Intel will face a war on the traditional computing front as well.

Stood Up by Nokia?

The first viable effort from Intel to enter the mobile market came in the form of a partnership with the world’s largest handset seller, Nokia. Last year, the two companies merged similar efforts to create an open-source operating system of their own called MeeGo. In comparison to established mobile platforms, however, product development was slow. Too slow, in fact to offer any help to beleaguered Nokia, which in the face of slowing sales, announced its intention to partner with Microsoft for Windows Phone 7 devices.

News of that partnership put additional pressure on Intel, because in order for Nokia to survive and thrive, it will have to invest much of its effort on integrating and adopting Microsoft’s ecosystem. MeeGo is still on the roadmap for Nokia, but the company has only announced plans to deliver one MeeGo device this year. Indeed, the platform has been relegated to experimental status by Nokia, in hopes that it can deliver something tangible for the next generation of mobile computing. So where does that leave Intel?

Android May Be the Only Viable Option

The company still can — and will — continue down the MeeGo path. But Android is turning up in conversations about Intel: a platform that the company says it was ready to support on its x86 chips nearly a year ago on its Atom chips. I’ve known that Android was possible to run on Intel’s chips for the better part of two years: I installed a custom version of Android on an Intel-powered 7-inch Windows slate back in 2009.

More recently, Intel’s name has been linked with other Android devices. Based in Taipei, DigiTimes reports Intel is working with at least a half-dozen notebook makers on Android devices and some could be announced as early as next month. I’m not convinced the world needs Android notebooks, simply because Android is a touch-optimized system better suited for a handheld device. But Intel’s collaboration with hardware partners could evolve into Android devices with other form factors, such as tablets or convertible notebooks, and even smartphones.

Can Intel Convince Hardware Partners?

Ultimately, as Intel continues work on maturing chips for mobile markets by paring down the amount of power they use, it faces one key challenge, regardless of the platform used: It needs to explain to hardware makers why they should choose Intel chips over those built on the ARM architecture. And that becomes difficult by the end of the year because Intel currently boasts more computing power than ARM chips. By the fourth quarter, however, Intel will be competing against the next generation of ARM processors, which will offer four computing cores and 2.5 GHz clock cycles.

If Intel can’t find a way to compete with silicon based on ARM, then not even support for Google Android, which has already saved some companies such as Motorola, will do the trick. But at the very least, Android can give Intel a fighting chance to stay relevant in the world of mobiles if the chipmaker can quickly gain hardware partner support.

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  1. Jonathan Greene Wednesday, March 16, 2011

    I like how we consider delivering a single device a failure for Nokia thanks to their insistence to deliver so many variants based on their consumer segmentation. If it was Apple one device would be the platform. That said, the real issue for Nokia and MeeGo is their real reluctance to commit to it for real.

    Intel needs to show compatibility more than just power efficient systems to gain support. There is risk for mobile device makers to switch and potentially risk abandoning their developers.

  2. It seems it was always Intel’s intent to support Android and MeeGo on their reference phone device. I hope they MeeGo can develop to support Android apps and they can sell it as a device that can run both.

  3. Intel is great for notebooks (for now) but they don’t deserve to be in the mobile market. Dual core ARM chips are already as powerful as a single core Atom, for less energy use and smaller price, and the next gen chips will maintain the low price and energy footprint while doubling performance, and they’re coming by the end of the year, about the same time new more efficient Intel Atom will be out. However, I don’t think it can compete with them, not even in performance, let alone price and energy consumption.

    There’s also another issue that will keep them from competing. Android x86 has been out for a while, but even the latest notebooks being announced and running Android are still using the same old Android 1.6 version. Surely, they don’t think Android x86 products will be competitive running version 1.6, right? Either they don’t understand how much having the latest version means, or they don’t care enough to keep it up to date, or they can’t and won’t be able to keep pace with Google and provide the latest Android version on x86.

  4. GoogleTV runs a variation of Android as well and that has been Intel native. So there is that angle as well.

    1. I don’t think manufacturers will want to create $300 set top boxes anymore, unless they want to fail in the market. They’ll go for $100-$150 and that can only happen if they use ARM chips. It was rumored that Samsung is waiting for Google to make Google TV ARM compatible before they release their Google TV products, so they can also use their own chips for it.

      1. Bingo. Intel’s current offerings simply aren’t competitive in the STB sector nor the mobile sector.

  5. I believe the answer is yes. Power Android users care which CPU the product is using. For the users just like Android system probably care the product design and usability of standby time. For tablet product, one day lasting power is quite enough for me.

  6. all this talk about how smart phone sales are overtaking PC sales is a bit presumptuous. It’s like saying apples are selling better than oranges, so oranges are really in trouble. Go walk around a college campus sometime and you’ll notice A) the bigger laptops are the most popular, and B) about half of them are Macbooks. That doesn’t play well with the popular myth that the whole world is moving to the cloud on small portable devices. It also brings into question the idea that Windows still wields absolute supremacy on larger platforms. Sometimes it’s good to close the web browser and get out a bit.

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