Can Android Save Intel in a World of ARM Devices?

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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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