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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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