Intel's rollout of its "Oak Trail" Atom platform is the first move in an aggressive strategy to take on ARM-based chips in the highly lucrative smartphone and tablet markets.
After more than a year of saber rattling,
Intel officials have taken a significant step in their push into the mobile
device space and in ramping up the competition with ARM Holdings, whose chip
designs are found in most smartphones and tablets.
At the Intel Developer Forum in China
April 11, Intel officials unveiled its "Oak Trail" Atom platform, including the
new Atom Z670. They also gave attendees a peek at the next Atom platform,
dubbed "Cedar Trail," a 32-nanometer platform that will extend Intel's reach
into a market that the giant chip maker has little if any presence.
The officials said the Oak Trail chips
will begin appearing in tablets in May, and that in all, more than 35 designs
will start appearing from OEMs like Lenovo, Fujitsu, Evolve III, Motion
Computing and Razer, running a variety of operating systems, including Windows,
Android and MeeGo.
Executives from Intel, the world's
largest chip maker and the longtime dominant vendor in the server and PC
markets, hope that Oak Trail and later Cedar Trail will help the company fulfill the promise
of President and CEO Paul
Otellini, who said during the IDF in September 2010 that Intel will become a
major player in the burgeoning tablet space.
"The new Intel Atom -Oak Trail'
platform, with -Cedar Trail' to follow, are examples of our continued
commitment to bring amazing personal and mobile experiences to netbook and
tablet devices, delivering architectural enhancements for longer battery life
and greater performance," Doug Davis, vice president and general manager of the
Netbook and Tablet Group at Intel, said in a statement.
Intel's interest in mobile devices is
not surprising. Market research firm Gartner is forecasting that tablet sales
will grow from almost 70 million this year to 294 million in 2015
. Meanwhile, In-Stat is
predicting 850 million smartphone sales
in 2015. The PC
market is still strong and growing, but not at the same rate.
The problem for Intel is that it has
not yet been able to drive down the power consumption rate in its Atom chips to
compete with ARM-designed chips from the likes of Samsung, Texas Instruments
and Qualcomm, which are found in most of the smartphones and tablets sold,
including the highly popular Apple iPads. Intel intends to attack ARM's
dominance starting with Oak Trail, and with a faster cadence that will see two
new Atom platforms in the next two to three years. Cedar Trail chips will start
sampling this year and begin shipping in 2012, while a 22-nm chip will begin
shipping in 2013.
Atom-based smartphones are expected to
start appearing on the market later this year, Intel executives have said.
With the 45-nm Oak Trail, the processor
is 60 percent smaller than previous versions and offers the graphics and memory
controller on the same die. Intel is promising all-day battery life, as well as
such features as Enhanced Deeper Sleep for greater power savings.
In a column on Forbes.com
, Roger Kay, principal
analyst with Endpoint Technologies Associates, noted that OEMs had readily
adopted Atom for netbooks, but that that market is beginning to fade. The real
prize, Kay said, is smartphones first, then tablets.
Eating into ARM's market share won't be
easy, not as more chip vendors-such as Nvidia-sign onto the platform. However,
it's too early in the game to count out Intel, Kay said.
"Intel has time on its side," he wrote.
"The company has no peer when it comes to process node technology, the
continuous shrinkage of silicon features that drives Moore's Law. ... But
the high mobility market is just beginning to take off, and the future is still
up for grabs. In some sense, Intel has no choice but to pursue this
course. Its traditional x86 business is large, and still growing, but
growth has attenuated over the past few years. More importantly,
excitement has shifted to high mobility."