Value of Intel-Google partnership on smartphones remains to be seen

Intel promises to have a smartphone based on its Atom chip in 2012

Intel this week promised that a smartphone based on its Atom processor will hit the market in the first quarter of 2012, while Google announced plans to make future Android releases work on Intel's mobile chips.

Those developments were announced recently by Intel's CEO Paul Otellini and Google's Senior Vice President of Mobile Andy Rubin, who appeared onstage together at the Intel Developer Forum.

But to analysts, the latest Intel-Google partnership wasn't all that significant, since Atom-based smartphones have been promised and delayed many times in recent years.

"Most of us didn't see what the big announcement [with Google and Intel] was," said Ken Dulaney, an analyst at Gartner. He noted that Intel's Medfield chip, based on Atom, "was always going to support Android and also MeeGo and Windows, so what's the news?"

It would almost seem that Intel's difficulty in producing smartphone chips would be a deterrent to Google's working with Intel, since Google's Android operating system already runs on the largest share of smartphones globally, some analysts said.

Dulaney added that the "onstage presence of Rubin [at an Intel event] seemed weird because there wasn't any real meat to the announcement."

However, other analysts said that the Intel-Google partnership on smartphones has a subtle meaning built on earlier partnerships between the two regarding data centers and Google TV.

Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates, said Google needs Intel more than Intel needs Google. "Google needs a more mature, down-to-earth partner to get Google to provide rock-solid, fully baked products," Gold said. "Google hasn't always been too good at that."

Intel and Google do seem to be an "odd couple," partly because Intel is so much older and more traditional than Google, Gold said, although such partnerships sometimes make sense.

Gold said Google will need Intel's assistance in building future versions of Android, which will progress well beyond today's smartphones and tablets.

Intel will be most valuable to Google as a software innovator, not a chip maker, Gold added. Intel has thousands of software engineers who have been making operating systems, not just Windows, run well for years.

"Intel won't necessarily help Android run better on ARM [chips], but it certainly can make Android run great on the Intel architecture," Gold added. Google also wants to run Android on x86 computers, such as desktops and laptops, which today outnumber tablets by a ration of four to one, Gold noted. Having such a capability will help Google compete against Microsoft and Apple, especially as cloud services evolve.

Power-saving ARM chips run on the overwhelming majority of smartphones today — something that Intel wants to change with its Atom-based approach. The work that Intel provides for Android on Atom will inevitably spill over to help improve Android on ARM, Gold said.

Few analysts are publicly venturing any guesses about how well Intel will do in smartphones with the power-hungry Atom processor, even though Intel is already very late to the smartphone game. Some believe Intel should invest in an ARM-based technology to try to catch up, but Dulaney disagreed.

"Intel does not need to buy ARM technology," Dulaney said in an email. "Intel will be fine if they can get the power consumption down in the 22nm and 14nm [Intel chip] worlds when they get here."

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His e-mail address is

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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