Intel Fumbles Its 64-Bit Smartphone Advantage

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When Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL  ) launched its A7 system-on-a-chip for its iPhone and iPad, the race to 64-bit was on. Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM  ) , the leader in mobile chips, was caught completely off guard -- it's clear that the company didn't expect to need to launch a 64-bit core until late 2015 or early 2016. This opened up a gaping opportunity for Intel (NASDAQ: INTC  ) to exploit with its 64-bit-capable Atom chips. Unfortunately, Intel failed to take advantage this key marketing point, as its products were late and ill-suited for their target markets.  

Merrifield DOA, Moorefield too late, and Bay Trail MIA
Intel has had three perfectly good, potentially game-changing products in the pipeline to finally gain some real traction against the ARM Holdings guys (in particular, Qualcomm):

  1. Bay Trail.
  2. Merrifield.
  3. Moorefield.

All three of these products were based on the 64-bit Intel Silvermont processor core, and all of them offer some pretty solid performance and excellent power consumption. Unfortunately, while these are good products, the launch timing of these parts pretty significantly damaged their competitiveness. Merrifield was officially "launched" at the Mobile World Congress, but not a single design win based on this part has been announced. Moorefield is more competitive, but it's unlikely to gain meaningful traction at tier-1 handset vendors, as the Snapdragon 801 is a better, more integrated chip that's here today. 

ASUS, Dell, and Lenovo have signed on to use Intel's parts, but it's not enough to move the needle. Source: Intel. 

Bay Trail has done well on Windows 8.1 tablets, but it's completely missing from Android. The good news is that there are designs that have been announced from the China Technology Ecosystem (for example, the beautiful Teclast X98), but the designs are still few and far between. They'll come eventually -- they need to for Intel to hit that 40 million tablet unit target -- but it's been frustrating to see the company sluggish in bringing this platform to Android.

64-bit selling point? Yeah, Qualcomm's already plugged that hole
The big selling point that Intel could have had with its chips is that its chips were 64-bit capable well ahead of the ARM guys. This could have been the impetus to drive software vendors to treat X86-64 as a first-class citizen on Android, and it could have been a chance for Intel to prove to the handset OEMs that it could deliver when needed -- building trust and relationships with key partners.

These Intel-powered phones, slated to launch in April, are still based on the old Clover Trail+ platform. Source: ASUS. 

But no. Qualcomm has prepared a complete stack of 64-bit, highly integrated system-on-a-chip products, from the ultra-high end Snapdragon 810 to the lowly Snapdragon 410. This was done by leveraging ARM's 64-bit processor, IP as Qualcomm didn't quite have a custom 64-bit core ready to go for the timeframe of these product launches. So Qualcomm has effectively neutralized the "64-bit" selling point for Intel. 

Maybe next time
Talk is cheap, and "buzzword" advantages in the high-tech world are usually short lived. While Intel continues to make significant progress with its mobile products and will probably eventually be a very strong competitor to Qualcomm, it's probably not going to be this year. Qualcomm won all of the designs in phones that mattered and so far seems to have scored some pretty tasty tablet designs to boot. Intel, on the other hand, still needs to show investors that it can execute.

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Ashraf Eassa

Ashraf Eassa is a technology specialist with The Motley Fool. He writes mostly about technology stocks, but is especially interested in anything related to chips -- the semiconductor kind, that is. Follow him on Twitter:

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