Intel Smartphones Coming in 2011, But Consumers Won’t Care

Intel has talked about its plans to push its chips into smartphones for well over a year. It appears such goals won’t be realized anytime soon. Handsets powered by Intel chips are expected to debut in numbers at either the Consumer Electronics Show or the Mobile World Congress events, both of which take place in early 2011. But such devices would likely be prototypes or used to announce design wins rather than actual shipping products. Intel CTO Justin Rattner tells Wired that these two trade shows are the “window of opportunity” for Intel to power devices in the fast-growing smartphone segment. I agree with Rattner that it’s good timing for Intel, but I still think the company faces a huge challenge in this market.

In fairness, Intel has made great strides with its Atom platform. Originally, such chips were used to power Ultra Mobile PCs and netbooks, but Intel’s Moorestown chipset — part of the Atom line — is meant to run inside smartphones. That’s traditionally a market ruled by processors built on ARM architecture, not Intel’s x86 platform. While ARM chips aren’t more powerful than those of Intel on a relative basis, they have offered better performance per watt of power used — in other words, ARM devices tend to run far longer on a single battery charge. But the latest Intel Atom chips are now approaching ARM-levels of power efficiency.

Unfortunately, Intel has a number of hurdles to overcome — simply building an chip that sips battery power instead of guzzling it is no guarantee of success. For this reason and others, Om has deemed Intel a mobile loser. I agree and think there are additional challenges that will limit Intel’s success in smartphones, the most important one being: why do consumers even need an x86 chip inside their smartphone? Support for the x86 platforms such as Windows, OS X and desktop versions of Linux aren’t required by the smartphones of today — or tomorrow, for that matter — when there are very capable mobile platforms that can run on ARM devices.

The fact is that most consumers don’t know or care whose chip is inside their handset. I’m willing to bet that if I asked ten random people what the chip is inside their smartphone, perhaps one or possibly two could provide an accurate answer. And of those that could, I’d further bet they’re as geeky as me and like to know about the guts of their devices. Most other consumers only care about what they can do with the device, not what brand of chip is inside. Yet Intel is clinging to its old “Intel Inside” computing strategy in a smartphone market. That marketing approach simply won’t work in today’s world.

To this point, there’s no compelling evidence that consumers even want to run a full-blown x86 desktop operating system on a mobile device. Instead, people are embracing lightweight operating systems supplemented by powerful mobile applications. This is a lesson Apple has learned and successfully implemented with the iPad — the device might fully replace a computer, but for over 3 million buyers in 80 days, the ARM-powered device is useful and provides a pleasant, but still productive, mobile experience.

Ironically, software may be the biggest challenge of all for Intel’s smartphone hardware plans:  you need a solid operating system for your chips to run. All of the currently popular mobile platforms are have adopted and been optimized for ARM chips — Apple’s iOS4, Google’s Android, Research in Motion’s BlackBerry and Nokia’s Symbian all run on ARM, not x86. Intel is reportedly working on a port of Android for x86 and I’ve even installed Android myself on a portable  x86 computer, but it will take time for Intel to get Android optimized.

Intel also has the MeeGo operating system for Atom in the works — which is derived from its own Moblin Project and Nokia’s Maemo system — but will handset makers want to use it? Not even partner Nokia has announced any Intel design wins for a smartphone. And since Meego is still in the very early stages of development — the first bare-bones build with an interface arrived just two days ago — it’s difficult to say when the platform will be competitive with iOS4 or Android.

With so many viable platforms available — and more importantly, tens of thousands of applications for them — what’s the compelling reason to use Intel over ARM? I suppose we’ll see if there is one at CES or MWC in early 2011, but until then, it’s an ARM world.

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