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Intel takes on mobile computing, picks new fights

Intel has announced that "Atom" will be the name given to its new family of low-powered processors designed for ultra mobile PCs and Mobile Internet Devices (MIDs).
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Written by Brett Winterford on

Intel has announced that "Atom" will be the name given to its new family of low-powered processors designed for ultra mobile PCs and Mobile Internet Devices (MIDs).

The Atom chips -- at just 25mm square and with a thermal design specification of between 0.6 and 2.5 watts (compared to today's 35-watt Core Duo processors), are intended for a new generation of pocket-sized computing devices that have much the same computing power as your average notebook computer.

Intel CEO Paul Otellini predicts that the first of the MIDs will be available from Intel's hardware partners before the year is out.

The chip giant claims that the market for MIDs will be worth some US$10 billion -- representing a "significant opportunity to grow the overall market for Intel silicon."

But the move, according to industry analysts, is fraught with considerable risk. In-Stat analyst Jim McGregor, for one, says that Intel's attempt to play in the world of mobiles pits it against those few processor manufacturing companies that aren't already its rivals.

Intel won't have to just compete with its "known adversaries" AMD and IBM, McGregor says, but with a series of new competitors that are well-entrenched in the mobile space.

"Intel's expansion into emerging form factors, such as MIDs, with low-power products expands its list of competitors, particularly those in the ARM processor camp," he said.

McGregor says that Intel has the technical expertise and financial strength to compete -- but will nonetheless find it tough going against ARM manufacturers such as TI, Freestyle and Samsung.

"The ARM camp also has the long-term relationships in the handset and consumer electronics markets and offer more diverse communications and other technical solutions, such as power management ICs (integrated circuits)," he said.

"Intel is in for a very tough battle."

McGregor expects VIA and AMD will become stronger forces in mobile. AMD, he says, is "way behind" Intel in developing low-power cores, but would also see the MID and ultra-mobile PC space as a "billion dollar pot of gold".

"If this market is the evolution of handsets and PCs, then you are looking at a phenomenal market size," McGregor says.

Not everybody, however, is convinced that the MID has as bigger future as Intel and others hope. IBM, McGregor predicts, might drop out of the semiconductor business altogether within a decade as it becomes unrelated to the company's core business.

Gartner research director Robin Simpson recently told ZDNet.com.au that he is unconvinced by the MID form factor altogether.

"I am sceptical about the mobile Internet device," Simpson said. "There have been many attempts to come up with a device that weighs less than a kilogram but has the functionality of a laptop. At Gartner, we call it the one kilogram wasteland."

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