Intel late but serious in smartphone fight

Industry alliances and promise of first Moorestown-powered LG smartphone signal chipmaker's market intent, says analyst, but won't topple ARM dominance.
Written by Vivian Yeo, Contributor

Intel may be late into the mobile chip game, but its industry alliances and upcoming products mark the chipmaker's earnestness to tap the business, an analyst pointed out. He also noted that while the chip giant has the ability to allocate resources for R&D and execute its mobile strategy, its moves may not be enough to unseed market leader ARM.

Francis Sideco, iSuppli's principal analyst for wireless communications, said that industry tie-ups in 2009 with the likes of LG and Nokia show Intel's "intent and seriousness" toward the mobile business.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last month, Intel executives showcased the LG GW990 smartphone powered by the chipmaker's Moorestown platform. The successor to the current Atom-based platform, Moorestown includes a system-on-a-chip and is slated for the first half of 2010.

"If the chip/phone works as [claimed], the LG win and resulting commercial release could go a long way toward Intel proving that [it has] a viable solution for the mobile device segment which requires full-day battery life of at least 10 hours or more with typical usage," he noted. "This, in and of itself, will not be enough to topple ARM-based dominance in this segment, but does herald Intel's real entry into the market."

The chipmaker, he acknowledged, is "behind" in the game and "there is always some disadvantage to that". On the other hand, Intel has the R&D resources "to catch up in a relatively short period of time if it really wants to", as well as the ability to execute.

As a chip architecture player, Intel faces stiff competition from ARM which is acknowledged as the market leader for the architecture behind mobile applications processors. ARM partners chipmakers such as Qualcomm to launch processors like the Snapdragon used in devices including Google's Nexus One.

But Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel is king in the x86 computing segment, and the company points out that phones are essentially becoming "small pocketable computers that happen to make a phone call".

In an e-mail, an Intel spokesperson said: "In 2008, over 125 million mobile consumer handheld devices were sold in the portable media, portable gaming, portable navigation, enterprise verticals and related categories. Most of these devices were based on a proprietary vertical software stack, were not connected and did not take advantage of the innovation on the Internet.

"As these devices become connected and embrace the open Internet, we expect them to require performance, value software and Internet compatibility, and be more computer-like--this is Intel's strategy and strength."

The Moorestown platform will kick off Intel's pursuit of smartphones, "where the primary usage is Internet-based", he added. Besides LG and Nokia, the chipmaker has also announced Moorestown partnerships with Aava Mobile, Compal, EB, Inventec, Open Peak, Quanta and Wistron.

According to the Intel spokesperson, the company's 32-nanometer Medfield product scheduled for 2011 will be more squarely targeted at the smartphone segment.

Mixed reactions from rivals
When contacted, a Qualcomm spokesperson welcomed Intel's entry, but did not comment further beyond an e-mail statement.

"Qualcomm has a long legacy of success in the development of 3G wireless technologies, and as always we believe competition is ultimately good for consumers and fosters global industry growth," the statement read.

James Bruce, wireless segment manager at ARM, noted that Intel will inevitably "make some inroads into the mobile market", but argued that the performance and power consumption of its rival's mobile processor architecture cannot match up to ARM's.

The competition's business model, he said, also runs "counter to what works in this market".

"Today as a consumer, you can buy a smartphone that meets your needs and your price point with a true diversity of choice, from the hardware to the software and features. This diversity and rate of innovation in smartphone development have been enabled because of the multiple silicon providers, with their own unique advantages, allowing handset manufacturers to differentiate their offerings," he pointed out. "This could not happen if the handset processor [came] from one supplier.

"In the ARM world we talk about enabling diversity and innovation, while in the Intel world they focus on 'de-fragmentation' built around one ordained solution," he continued. "Which approach is more exciting and better for the consumer?"

According to Bruce, ARM will reveal details of its roadmap over the next few months. He added that the company is confident it will "continue to be at the heart of the best devices", even as the continuum of mobile and personal computing devices expands.

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