@ CES: Intel Gets The Mobile Partners–Motorola and Lenovo–It Badly Needed

Intel (NSDQ: INTC) has convinced a couple of big-name consumer electronics companies to jump on board with its mobile strategy. Lenovo and Motorola (NYSE: MMI) committed to releasing phones and tablets based on Intel’s mobile chips in 2012, with Lenovo’s product set to hit the market in China during the second quarter.

CEO Paul Otellini announced the partnerships during a keynote presentation at CES 2012 Tuesday. For months Intel had been hinting that this would be the year it finally convinced phone makers to bet on its Atom chips, which use a different instruction set than the ARM chips found in virtually all of today’s smartphones and tablets, which means software written for those chips won’t run on Intel’s without some help.

Intel danced around exactly how this will work, but Mike Bell, co-general manager of Intel’s revamped smartphone project, said on stage that the company added some features to the references designs showcased using the Atom chips in order to ensure that Android applications written for ARM chips would run on Atom. This likely involves emulation of some sort, which in some cases can negatively affect performance but can sometimes be good enough to get by for a while, as when Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) used similar technology to finesse its transition between Power-based chips and Intel’s laptop and desktop chips.

We’ll have to see how Android apps perform when the phones are released. Lenovo, which certainly isn’t a smartphone power in the U.S. but is a fixture in China, announced the K800 phone during Otellini’s speech. It runs Android and will be available for China Unicom’s network in the second quarter, said, Liu Jun, senior vice president at Lenovo.

Motorola’s presence was a bit more of a surprise, although perhaps not as much when you consider the ties between Intel, Google (NSDQ: GOOG), and Motorola. Otellini is a longtime member of Google’s board of directors, while Motorola awaits the completion of Google’s $12.5 billion acquisition of the company. Motorola’s plans for Atom were vague (Atom-based smartphones are to ship “later this year”) but still noteworthy, especially since the company also committed to releasing Android tablets based on Intel’s chips.

Meanwhile, Intel had only a homegrown tablet reference design to show off during the keynote running Windows 8, the great tablet hope of Intel’s oldest and best friend in the tech industry. To be fair, Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) hasn’t announced specific manufacturer tablet plans for Windows 8, but it was still a bit funny given that Microsoft decided to make an ARM version of Windows partly out of concern about Intel’s mobile strategy.

We won’t be able to handicap these developments until the products are put through the paces by reviewers who will do much more than hold the phones up for the cameras. Still, it’s a huge milestone for Intel.