Intel smartphone ambitions stunted by Nokia withdrawal

Nokia's move to the Windows Phone OS took the "wind" out of possible volume sales of Intel smartphone chips this year, but the chip maker has moved on, Intel CEO Paul Otellini said this week.

Intel is now redirecting resources to recruit other wireless carriers and phone makers to adopt its upcoming low-power Atom smartphone chip code-named Medfield, Otellini said on a conference call Tuesday.

Intel was hoping to see smartphones with its chips starting in the second half this year. Otellini said he would be disappointed if Intel-based phones were not available in 12 months. He did not comment on the smartphone companies Intel was pursuing, but analysts on Wednesday said that the chip maker could be pursuing smaller regional phone makers, and perhaps larger phone makers such as LG.

Intel has had no success so far in the smartphone space. The company currently offers a low-power Atom smartphone chip code-named Moorestown, which has found no adopters. Intel and Nokia last year partnered on the development of the Meego OS for mobile devices, but Nokia in February abandoned the OS to establish a future smartphone strategy around Microsoft's Windows Phone OS. Windows Phone OS does not work on Intel's chips, and Otellini said the crumbling of the partnership has forced Intel to pursue other companies to adopt Medfield.

Intel committed a lot of resources to Nokia around the Meego OS, but now has to restart efforts to get new customers to adopt Medfield, analysts said. That could delay the launch of Intel Inside smartphones, but devices will eventually come. However, the success of such devices in a market dominated by ARM processors remains a question mark, analysts said.

Intel could chase smaller vendors in developing markets where smartphone shipments are exploding, said Jack Gold, principal analyst at J. Gold Associates. Smartphone shipments are growing in countries like China, where companies such as ZTE and Lenovo are establishing a larger mobile presence.

"It's one thing to partner with Nokia, it's another thing to partner with [smaller vendors]," Gold said. Major vendors such as Nokia bring volume shipments worldwide, while the smaller vendors may provide a slower entry for Intel into the smartphone market.

LG is a major vendor that has shown interest in the Meego OS and could adopt Intel's Medfield chip, Gold said. Intel has virtually no presence in the smartphone market, and can only go up, Gold said.

When the Medfield processor is delivered, Intel will compete with ARM, whose low-power processors go into most of the world's smartphones today. ARM processors are considered more power efficient than Intel's Atom, which have been derived from PC chips.

There is no doubt that an Intel-based smartphone will be available, but the question is whether it will be successful, said Dean McCarron , principal analyst at Mercury Research. With Medfield as an early-generation chip, it may not be easy for Intel to make an impact in the smartphone market, McCarron said.

"It's not an easy market to get into and it's not a market Intel has been in," McCarron said.

ARM rules the smartphone market and Intel has to evolve its smartphone processor faster to make an impact, McCarron said. Most of the software is written for the ARM architecture, which has been written from the ground up for smartphones. Intel is scaling down the geometry of its potent PC chips to fit into smartphones, but its only a matter of time before Atom matches ARM on power consumption, McCarron said.

Medfield will be made using the 32-nanometer manufacturing process, and the company in the future will make smartphone chips using the 22-nm process. Reducing the geometry will make chips faster and more power efficient, analysts said.

But beyond a continued cycle of scaling down the size of chips, Intel's Otellini argued that Intel's advantage over ARM will be a robust computer architecture that can scale and a wider array of communication capabilities. Intel earlier this year acquired Infineon's wireless division, and has said it will implement technology acquired through the acquisition, such as 3G and 4G radios, inside future Atom chips.

"In terms of X86 versus ARM, it's not just about the core as much as we would like it to be, and I guess as much as ARM guys would like it to be. It's about the core, the overall capability of the system on chip, the things you put around it -- the graphics, the [communication] subsystems, the media processing subsystems and the overall power envelope relative to the performance that you can deliver of the SOC," Otellini said.

Otellini said Intel will also have a strong position in the smartphone market because of support for multiple operating systems such as Meego, Google's Android, and Microsoft's upcoming Windows OS. The operating systems going ahead will have much better cross-platform support, and it will be easier to move from ARM to Intel or ARM to ARM, especially with Windows.

"I'd also point out that all of the major operating systems in smartphones are written at a high level such that they are cross platform and portable," Otellini said.

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