Is Intel Finally About to Go Mobile?

Intel's (Nasdaq: INTC  ) mobile ambitions have been a long time coming, but we may finally see something materialize in the near future. Better late than never, right?

Wait for it ... wait for it ...
The chip giant has been talking about its Medfield-based Atom processors for ages, with promises of Medfield smartphones by this year. With 2011 winding down and nothing to show for it, Intel now expects early 2012 as the time frame to mark on the calendar.

Similar to the Ultrabook reference designs it has been disseminating to chase the success of Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) MacBook Air, Intel is also providing Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) Android vendors a smartphone and tablet reference design using its chips. Gadget makers are free to use as much or as little of the reference design as they like. Notably, Intel and Google recently announced an agreement to "optimize" Android for Intel chips.

The company is hoping to play catch-up and spur OEMs to start using Intel chips in a space that is dominated by ARM Holdings (Nasdaq: ARMH  ) architecture, and it hopes gadgets running its chips can go up against the iPhone and iPad.

"Hey, boss, what do you want us to do now?"
Ever since netbooks stepped out of the public eye, replaced by tablets, Intel's Atom processors have been twiddling their thumbs as an answer to a question that people are asking less and less. The company has also all but ceded the smart TV CPU space to ARM.

Intel's VP of architecture Stephen Smith even hinted we might see some mobile devices sporting Intel Atom chips at the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas next month.

To SoC and beyond
Intel has finally gotten its Atom designs down to one chip, known as system on a chip, (SoC). That feature is what has always allowed ARM chips to boast power consumption advantages, and it's standard on ARM chips from companies such as NVIDIA (Nasdaq: NVDA  ) , which has been cashing in on mobile. Apple's custom designed A4 and A5 chips are also SoC.

Smith said, "This is our first offering that's truly a single chip." While getting up to speed in that department is just catching up with the ARM competition, Intel hopes to pull forward in the arms race by moving to smaller sizes. Medfield chips currently use 32-nanometer technology, while most ARM-based chips are between 40 nanometers to 45 nanometers.

ARM will quickly catch up, but Intel is hoping to take it a step further with 22-nanometer technology in 2013, before ARM chipmakers make that same jump in 2014.

A two-way problem
The performance of the hardware prototypes that Intel has demonstrated are mostly on par with current devices today in standard tasks like video playback, streaming, and Web browsing. Rather, the main problem that I think Intel will run into while trying to infiltrate the mobile sector is the same problem that ARM faces in its attempted invasion of the traditional PC sector.

Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) Windows 8 is set to incorporate ARM support, opening up possibilities for the British chip designer's wares. Software support will continue to be the biggest hurdle for either chip faction in crossing the PC-mobile bridge. Getting the OS makers, like Google and Microsoft, onboard is just the first step, and while crucial, it pales in comparison with how many small third-party app developers that are out there.

Between the Android Market and Apple App Store, there are almost 900,000 mobile apps between the two dominant mobile platforms. That's a lot of apps that would need to be rewritten to be compatible with Intel's architecture. The same can be said about x86 apps and ARM architecture on PCs.

Is it enough?
Chip powerhouse Qualcomm (Nasdaq: QCOM  ) is going even further by integrating its baseband chip directly into processors, which facilitates even thinner designs and more efficiency improvements. Qualcomm even kicked Intel-owned Infineon out of the coveted iPhone baseband slot this year.

I still think Intel is too late to the mobile party. The festivities are well under way and have gained too much momentum for Intel to simply arrive this late and still ask for a seat at the table. Even though it's making headway on the technical side, it won't be enough to turn the tide in its favor.

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Fool contributor Evan Niu owns shares of Apple, ARM Holdings, and NVIDIA, but he holds no other position in any company mentioned. Check out his holdings and a short bio. The Motley Fool owns shares of Intel, Apple, Google, Qualcomm, and Microsoft and has bought calls on Intel. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Apple, Microsoft, NVIDIA, Google, and Intel, writing puts in NVIDIA, and creating bull call spread positions in Intel, Apple, and Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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  • Report this Comment On December 24, 2011, at 10:41 AM, techy46 wrote:

    It's all about the Intel Atom 3D SoC at 22nm folowed by 14 and 7nm. It's a classical CISC vs RISC battle that Intel's fought and won several times in the last 20 years; MIPS, PowewrPC, etc. Hopefully, Windows 8 will allow the ARM vs X86 comparison to be made on a leveled playing field. It's going to be fun to invest in and watch.

  • Report this Comment On December 24, 2011, at 11:22 AM, H3D wrote:

    "Between the Android Market and Apple App Store, there are almost 900,000 mobile apps between the two dominant mobile platforms. That's a lot of apps that would need to be rewritten to be compatible with Intel's architecture."

    Most Apple iOS apps are written developed on Intel x86 and only moved to ARM for release.

    A quick recompile is all that would be needed.

    But the ARM architecture will still be better for mo ole devices, so why bother.

    @techy46 said

    "It's the classic CISC vs RISC battle that Intel's fought and won several times in the tast 20 years."

    No. It's a completely different battle. Intel lost on architecture but won commercially because Windows and Windows Applications were the predominant market and were locked into Intel. This have them finance for leading edge fab and implementations, but the architecture was always poor.

    This time on smartphones Intel and Microsoft are chasing the rear. Intel may get some slight benefit from its much hyped 3D, but ever smaller fab is open to anyone who can pay. That's not a Wintel monopoly this time.

  • Report this Comment On December 24, 2011, at 11:39 AM, makelvin wrote:

    "That's a lot of apps that would need to be rewritten to be compatible with Intel's architecture..."

    While this might be true for Apple's iOS devices due to the fact that its app binaries are ARM machine code specific, it won't be true for Google's Android. This is due to the fact that Android apps binaries are JAVA which can be run on any similarly JAVA Virtual Machine under any OS and CPU without having to do any rewrite or recompile for it to work.

  • Report this Comment On December 24, 2011, at 11:57 AM, H3D wrote:

    @Makelvn

    Android doesn't use a Java virtual machine and thereby allow its code to be run on any Java virtual machine. That is why the Android smartphone vendors are going to be paying billions in damages to Oracle.

    But no doubt the code will move easily enough anyway.

  • Report this Comment On December 24, 2011, at 12:15 PM, makelvin wrote:

    @H3D,

    Android does use a JAVA virtual machine, they just call it Dalvik. Here is a link at Wikipedia regarding its virtual machine. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dalvik_(software)

    Google is been sued by Oracle because they are not using Oracle's JAVA virtual machine, not because they are not using a JAVA virtual machine.

  • Report this Comment On December 24, 2011, at 12:58 PM, H3D wrote:

    @malvic

    No. Oracle own the name Java and only allow it to be used, along with associated patents, for VMs that fully meet the Java spec, including all required libraries. For example the full Swing GUI.

    The Gnu VM is not Oracle's, but is legal because it is fully compatible.

    Dalvic if not fully compatible, so it is not licenced.

    This is important to Oracle because any java VM should run all java Applications subject to minimum revision. Dalvik will not run all non Dalvik Java applications so it is not Java. Is not therefore licenced to use the Java patents.

  • Report this Comment On December 24, 2011, at 1:07 PM, makelvin wrote:

    @H3D,

    I never said in my original post that Android app was running on Oracle's JAVA VM; I just said a similar JAVA VM which is exactly what Dalvik is. So I am not sure what argument you are trying to make here? Are you trying to say that even though Dalvik is a JAVA VM like so therefore it should not be considered as a JAVA VM at all? That is like saying Linux has no relationship with UNIX even though it copied and inherited most of its principal architecture. That type of semantic argument is silly.

    Dalvik is an open-sourced JAVA virtual machine. It is designed to mimic JAVA virtual machine. It shares the same principal and function as a JAVA virtual machine. As the old saying goes, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck...

  • Report this Comment On January 07, 2012, at 4:12 AM, webmind wrote:

    INTC doesn't have the technical and marketing ability to compete in the mobile space? Funny.

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