Intel (INTC -0.86%) may have only just begun its big push into smartphone and tablet devices, but it's already made tremendous progress. In a few short years, Intel's x86 chip architecture has gone from too power-hungry for mobile to making its way into seven smartphones, which are available in 20 countries. Thanks to Intel's heavy investments into cutting-edge manufacturing processes, the company is nearing an inflection point where it will pose a greater threat to its mobile archnemesis, ARM Holdings (ARMH). In the coming years, Intel's power-hungry reputation is likely to become a thing of the past, and should drive greater overall acceptance for Intel to power more mobile devices.
It's wide open down there
Currently the world has only reached about 25% smartphone saturation, suggesting that the lower-end smartphone market offers some seriously untapped growth potential. Intel's Lexington smartphone platform aims to capture share in the value segment of smartphone industry, which is expected to reach an annual shipment rate of 500 million devices by 2015. Smartphones based on the Lexington will be able to support front- and rear-facing cameras, 1,080p video viewing, HSPA+, dual SIM cards, wireless video streaming via Intel's WiDi technology, and the ability to hyper-thread its 1.2Ghz core. In other words, the Lexington chipset should prove than adequate for the lower-end smartphone market.
Naturally, Intel won't be stopping here. Its upcoming Merrifield chipset due out later this year offers enhanced power efficiency and performance on a smaller 22-nanometer design. Intel will be the first chip maker with 22-nanometer design for smartphones and tablets, giving it a potentially sizable advantage against Qualcomm's (QCOM 0.79%) leading-edge 28-nanometer designs. If Intel's technological advantage on paper can translate into real-world advantages, the entire mobile computing industry has the potential to be disrupted.
Although Microsoft (MSFT -0.23%) Windows 8 sales have been rather bleak, the company recently approved lower-resolution screen specifications for Windows 8 tablets, paving the way for 7- to 8-inch Windows 8 tablets to be developed. Last quarter, one out of every two tablets shipped was a device with a screen size less than 8 inches.
In theory, Microsoft OEMs should be able to bring $200-$300 Windows 8 tablets powered by Intel's upcoming Bay Trail quad-core processor to the masses. Not only would this development give Google Android some serious competition in the lower-end tablet segment, it would eliminate the need (and confusion) surrounding Windows RT. Additionally, Intel's Bay Trail processor will be the only 22-nanometer tablet chip on the market -- a full generation ahead of the ARM competition. In other words, a competitively priced 7- to 8-inch tablet that's running the full version of Windows 8 could do wonders for both Intel and Microsoft.
Integration and beyond
Qualcomm's success in mobile computing can be largely attributed to the innovation it brought by integrating more components onto a single piece of silicon. Intel has taken a page out of Qualcomm's playbook and investors can expect to see deeper levels of integration between mobile and CPU components in the coming years. Considering that Intel owns the computing market in terms of mindshare, as Intel better integrates its components, it could potentially threaten Qualcomm's stronghold in the market.
During Intel's most recent conference call, CEO Paul Otellini claimed that the company's 32-nanometer Medfield chipset is very competitive compared to the best ARM designs in terms of performance and battery life. The majority of the technology world believes this to be a farce, but perhaps that will change once Chipzilla brings the world's first 22-nanometer smartphone and tablet designs to market.