Intel lays out strategic mobile roadmap

How Intel thinks it can become a power in the burgeoning mobile market

Intel used to talk endlessly about Moore's Law - doubling the transistors that can be put on an integrated circuit about every two years - as the source of ever-greater benefits for everyone in the PC value chain every two years like clockwork. But today, fittingly at Mobile World Congress, Intel CEO, Paul Otellini, in effect declared that the company could no longer wait on Moore's Law.

Otellini outlined Intel's strategy to become in the burgeoning mobile market what it manifestly is not today: a power. In a strange way, his presentation to reporters and analysts and the questions that followed underlined that reality over and over.

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Intel, like so many other traditional tech giants, has been caught by surprise by the rise of smartphones, and now tablets. That was underscored symbolically two years ago, when Microsoft, one half of "Wintel" which still rules on the PC market, wanted an applications processor for its hardware specification for Windows Phones, the radically revamped UI for its mobile operating system. It worked closely with Qualcomm, whose Snapdragon CPU powers all brands of Windows Phones today.

But Windows Phone's market share is scarcely the size of the margin of error in most analysts' reports. The two biggest mobile platforms, Apple's iOS and Google's Android, are selling in the millions worldwide, and not one of them runs an Intel CPU. Apple designs its own custom iPhone and iPad CPUs and farms out manufacturing to Asian foundries. Android handset makers choose from a range of chipmakers.

But as Otellini noted in his remarks, most people spend most of their time on mobile phones computing, not talking: updating Facebook four times an hour, watching movies or video, searching the Web -- hundreds of tasks of all kinds, all of which need a CPU that can deliver performance without killing the battery.

He talked in traditional terms about how Moore's Law has let Intel continue silicon innovation, moving from a 32-nanometer process in 2009 to 22-nanometer process for its Ivy Bridge chips, due out in weeks in new PCs and laptops. He talked about the ecosystem of Intel software developers, numbering 14 million, with 6 million applications available, an environment made possible, he said, by Intel's support of open standards. He also talked about Intel's legacy of support for multiple operating systems.

All this, he said, Intel will bring to the smartphone market with an expansion of its Atom mobile processor line. The expansion not only includes new chips, but an accelerated development process intended to shove Moore's Law into high gear in a competitive, fast-growing market.

Intel will release its Medfield Atom chip, the Atom Z2460 running at 2GHz this year, with companion communications chipsets; the Atom 32580 will follow, doubling the Medfield's performance, and chipsets for faster HSPA and for LTE. For the "value" market -- where consumers don't or won't spend a lot of money - Intel will offer the Atom Z200, with a 1GHz processor, making possible Intel-powered phones with a retail price tag of under $US150, Otellini estimated.

For Atom at least, Intel is abandoning the comfortable two-year cycle of silicon advancements. In 2012, the Atom chips will use a 32-nanometer process; in 2013, 22-nanometer; and in 2014, a 14-nanometer process. And that will, in turn, require heavy capital investments in its chip foundries.

Intel just weeks ago at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) unveiled a full Atom-based reference design for smartphone makers and operators, with an 8-megapixel camera that can snap 10 pictures in less than a second, and record 1080p video. Both Motorola and Lenovo had pledged to make use of it. This week, on stage with Otellini, France's Orange, a mobile carrier, Lava International, an fast-growing mobile phone maker in India, and ZTE demonstrated Intel-powered prototypes, all running Android and all closely following the Intel reference design.

And Visa announced it has certified Intel's smartphone reference design, and the Atom Z2660 for use with Visa payWave, the credit card company's mobile payment technology that uses a short-range radio called near field communication (NFC). Users can simply wave their phone in front of a payment terminal to pay for dinner or buy accessories for their new Intel-inside phone.

The phones will also be able to securely transmit payment information to a payment terminal and can be set up to connect to Visa's mobile payment provisioning service, which is a way for banks and other financial services companies and mobile carriers to download Visa account information and the payWave application, all over the air to a secure chip on an NFC-equipped Intel hone.

During questions, Otellini brushed off queries that probed for more specifics in Intel's plan. One reporter asked what he would do to convince big Android handset makers like HTC, as well as Apple, to consider the Atom. "I think the devices here at Mobile World Congress and at CES will light a fire under those companies," he said.

"We have ambitions not to be a minor player," he said.

Another questioner noted Otellini had not talked about multi-core CPU, which parallelize its operations to make it faster, and wondered why.

"I don't think it matters," Otellini said. "What matters is the overall system performance." And Intel can hold its own with any rivals when it comes to that, he suggested. He referenced an earlier chart that had showed Intel's Atom chip besting five rivals in a range of performance tests. "Our chart compared the Intel one-core with two- or four-core [from other chipmakers].

"What matters is the delivered performance," Otellini said. He seemingly has no doubt whatsoever that Intel can deliver exactly that for both carriers and end users.

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World. Twitter: john_cox@nww.comBlog RSS feed:

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