Intel wants you to put the Internet in your pocket

Intel targets mobile Internet with new device platform

San Francisco—The next big thing for Intel is little. The company has used its Developer Forum, here, to extol the virtues of its forthcoming handheld device platforms for allowing consumers to connect to the Internet. Intel calls this “Internet in your pocket.”

Intel has been chasing the handheld space for some time without much success. It started with the Xscale processor, recently sold to Marvell, and is now taking aim with its own Intel Architecture or x86 processor technology. The first generations of its IA-based handheld platform, which use its low-power notebook processors and chipsets, haven’t done much to wow thus far. That’s partially because they have been wrapped in Ultramobile PC hardware, which costs around $1,000 and does not have a straightforward method to gain access to wide area wireless. For that price, you might as well just buy an inexpensive notebook. And that’s what most people do.

But Intel is touting significant improvements in device size, battery life and connectivity for its forthcoming handheld platforms, including one dubbed Menlow that is due in the first half of next year. It appears as if the Menlow has begun to win over some. The company listed companies including Samsung and Fujitsu as designing MID devices here at IDF.

To be clear, Menlow is not a device. It’s a collection of chips that make it possible for a manufacturer to build a device. This new platform contains Silverthorne processor, a sub-1-watt chip that is smaller than the size of a penny, yet still powerful enough to run Windows Vista. Not that it will in every case. Silverthorne will power next year’s UMPCs, based on Windows Vista. But Intel thinks that Menlow will also spawn a range of handheld, network-connected MIDs or mobile Internet devices. Intel believes these MIDs, some of which are analogous to Apple’s iPod Touch, will gain in popularity through the end of this decade. Intel has already been working with software developers to create device-specific applications, based on Linux, for MIDs. However, Intel believes that the primary application will be the Internet—whether that’s Web browsing or specifically accessing social networking sites or looking up directions.

It’s also working with a partner to create a cellular broadband add-in card to allow MIDs to connect to 3G networks. Intel’s own networking technology will allow MIDs to connect to Wi-Fi and or WiMAX networks. So, for a few hundred bucks in 2008 consumers should be able to purchase an Internet-connected handheld device. This presents a far different value proposition than plunking down about $1,000 for a non-connected UMPC. UMPCs are also fairly bulky given their 7-inch screens. MID devices are likely to offer 3.5-inch to 5-inch screens, making them a little more portable.

Some will say that Apple has beaten Intel to the punch with the iPod Touch, which starts at $299. But remember that Intel will be offering a platform, not an end device. (The chipmaker would be more than happy to sell Apple the guts for the next iPod Touch I am sure.) Keeping in mind that the comparison involves a device that’s available in 2007 with a device platform due in 2008, it does make some sense to contrast the two.

How would an MID device differ from what Apple’s iPod Touch has to offer right now? MID devices will have more connectivity. MIDs will be capable of offering broadband wireless connections via WiMAX or cellular networks, whereas the iPod Touch now only offers Wi-Fi (remember we’re comparing an 07 device to an 08 device, so Apple could certainly add to the iPod Touch). MIDs won’t offer cellular phone capabilities like Apple’s iPhone, upon which the iPod Touch is based. But they will support VOIP, which could work when combined with WiMAX.

That’s not to say there aren’t barriers to adoption. MIDs need to offer broadband wireless Internet for under $500 to be compelling. Currently WiMAX, one way of offering broadband wireless, is currently very limited in availability. Wide-area cellular-based wireless is expensive, costing roughly $80 per month, and relatively slow. That's another couple of barriers. Meanwhile, people will have to decide what they want. The question is, do I want a device that is primarily a phone or do I want one that's primarily for Internet access, messaging and data?

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