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."