With Nokia Dating Microsoft, Intel Was Just Stood Up

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Today marks what may be the most significant day for three companies in the mobile space as Nokia has adopted Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 for future smartphones. For the first time ever, Nokia will be just another handset maker that runs someone else’s smartphone operating system. Gone is the strategy of Nokia owning the entire ecosystem; the company’s handsets will use Microsoft services, with the exception of Nokia Maps, which will be integrated into Microsoft’s phone platform. So which is the third company affected by today’s earthquake? It’s Intel that’s going to feel aftershocks for some time to come.

Intel has a challenge on two mobile fronts: hardware and software. For the past few years, the company has been working on its Atom platform: chips that sip battery power, rather than guzzle it. Intel is making strides with Atom, but silicon based on the ARM architecture currently dominates the mobile market. Practically every smartphone currently available or on the horizon uses an ARM-based processor, not an x86 chip from Intel. So the company is like the out-of-shape kid that nobody wants when picking teams for a basketball game. Actually, it may be worse than that; teams would rather play a man down than choose Intel for their mobile device.

But it’s the software side of mobile computing where Intel really took a hit today from the Nokia events: None of the popular mobile operating system platforms are paired with Intel’s hardware. Sure, some, such as Google’s Android, can be ported from ARM to x86 and run on Intel chips — I’ve done that experiment in the past — but the approach isn’t being used today. Apple’s iOS, Google Android, HP’s webOS, Microsoft Windows Phone 7, and Research In Motion’s BlackBerry and QNX platforms are all paired with non-Intel chips today.

Intel actually had a chance for a mobile software platform with its Moblin project: The open-sourced operating system was an investment to get a mobile platform for Intel’s chips. It was a smart idea, but the effort was later merged with Nokia’s experimental Maemo project to become MeeGo. And therein lies the rub.

Now that Nokia is going with Windows Phone 7, MeeGo — and Intel, by default — becomes the odd man out and has to sit on the bench. Nokia has worked on MeeGo for the past year, but even as Nokia CEO Stephen Elop noted in his “burning platform” memo, the company may only have one device to show for the effort in 2011. And with today’s announcement, MeeGo has gone from an “it-will-save-the-company” strategy to a continued experiment based on the press release:

Under the new strategy, MeeGo becomes an open-source, mobile operating system project. MeeGo will place increased emphasis on longer-term market exploration of next-generation devices, platforms and user experiences. Nokia still plans to ship a MeeGo-related product later this year.

That means unless Intel can convince another platform maker that Atom is now power-efficient enough to be used in a smartphone or tablet, the company will continue to be relegated to desktops, laptops and servers. That sounds great until you hear that smartphones are now beginning to outsell traditional computers. And even worse, mobile chip companies are prepared to power Windows computers and even servers in the future. Without a full court press on MeeGo from Nokia, Intel’s already dim prospects for cracking the fast-growing mobile market have been relegated to a back seat at best.

Intel doesn’t seem to agree however, as it issued this statement to Laptop Magazine:

While we are disappointed with Nokia’s decision, Intel is not blinking on MeeGo. We remain committed and welcome Nokia’s continued contribution to MeeGo open source.Our strategy has always been to provide choice when it comes to operating systems, a strategy that includes Windows, Android, and MeeGo. This is not changing. MeeGo is not just a phone OS, it supports multiple devices. And we’re seeing momentum across multiple segments – automotive systems, netbooks, tablets, set-top boxes and our Intel silicon will be in a phone that ships this year.

That sounds well and good, but overly optimistic in my view, because Nokia’s main efforts will now be focused on the transition from Symbian to Windows Phone 7, not on the MeeGo experiment. Indeed, the last few words of Intel’s statement are telling, because Intel silicon powering one phone in a sea of handsets doesn’t instill confidence. And there are already viable tablets on the market or about to hit the market, none of which are using Intel’s chips, which may mean Atom is relegated to embedded systems, netbooks and net-tops. Unfortunately for Intel, today just confirmed Om’s thought that it really is turning into a mobile loser.

Image courtesy Flickr user Dana Rocks.

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