Intel, the chip behemoth which resides in most of the PCs used world wide has a problem. And the problem is only getting bigger by the day. And Intel is finally stepping up before it is too late.
The topic of this post is Intel’s smartphone and tablet ambitions and how it is finally upping its ante in the game which is currently being dominated by ARM Holdings. For once, Intel is playing catch up. Something it is almost never used to doing if you discount the brief period when AMD swamped the market with 64 bit processors while Intel was still shipping only 32 bit processors. But this time, the stakes are much higher.
As discussed in older posts, the PC industry is at an inflexion point. Microsoft is building its next OS keeping touch and portable devices in mind. It is being built from the ground up for Intel and non-Intel platforms from Qualcomm and ARM Holdings. The runaway success of Apple’s iPad built on ARM architecture based processors has caused a big question mark on Intel’s mobile strategy or the lack of it. Atom processors were supposed to be Intel’s low power portable device play but the cost, size and performance of Intel Atom processors prevent it from mounting a meaningful challenge to ARM.
Intel has had a mixed history in the mobile world. It pioneered the widespread adoption if Wi-Fi by putting in its Centrino solution. But it missed the boat on WWAN by betting big on WiMax. At some point, Intel had its own communications chip team that it sold off to Marvell. What seemed like a smart move to focus on its core business turned out to be a bad read on the future of technology. Intel realized that it was getting left behind when Apple’s phone and tablet products took off. And Android followed suit. ARM had the market sewn up and with Qualcomm dominating iOS (recently), Android and on Windows Phone 7, ARM didn’t have anything to worry.
Intel starting ramping up with its acquisition of Infineon’s Wireless division in 2010. This was an essential first step in getting a modem solution. It then started working closely with Google on the Android platform which culminated with the recent announcement of Android builds optimized for Intel platforms. This will eventually be followed by an Android phone with Intel inside.
Intel is not assured of success in the mobile space. Unlike the desktop segment where Intel is the unquestionable leader, the mobile space has Intel as a latecomer with little market traction. It will be a huge challenge to unseat Arm from its prime position. The fact that Intel’s rival Qualcomm is dedicated to the ARM platform makes the battle just as much harder. Added to its pain is Microsoft’s growing partnership with Qualcomm for Windows Phone platform and its recent adoption of ARM as a key development platform.
Intel has a steep hill to climb in the burgeoning wireless business. What it has is a lot of money and clout to negotiate partnerships with big companies. The industry could do with competition which always improves the product for the customer and lowers costs. Can Intel do it? Time will tell.