Intel continues to be the world’s largest processor vendor, owning almost 80 percent of the market and recording five consecutive quarters of record revenue, even as the world’s economies continue to struggle.
However, much of Intel’s revenue comes from processors used in traditional PCs, a market that is seeing sluggish sales and is rapidly commoditizing. Company executives covet a space in which the chip maker has little presence: the booming mobile computing business.
The rapidly expanding smartphone and tablet markets are dominated by chips designed by ARM Holdings and made by the likes of Qualcomm, Nvidia and Texas Instruments. Despite Intel’s efforts to muscle its way in-with its low-power Atom platform, for example, and its work developing the open-source MeeGo mobile operating system-the vendor hasn’t gotten much traction.
That has done little to blunt Intel’s ambitions, and, at the Intel Developer Forum (IDF) that ran Sept. 13-16 in San Francisco, the industry got a good look at how the chip maker plans to push its way in. Most significant was a new alliance with Google, which pledged to optimize future versions of its popular Android operating system for Intel’s Atom platform.
At the same time, Intel executives began to provide greater details about their ultrabook initiative. It’s designed to fuel mobile PC sales and stave off a nascent challenge by ARM and its partners as they strive to move into the low-power PC segment.
The Google partnership could be a particular boon for Intel and its mobile efforts The move will give Intel a powerful partner that is seeing Android embraced by a wide range of vendors, from HTC to Samsung to LG Electronics. Such a partner will be crucial to Intel as it goes forward, according to Greg Richardson, an analyst with Technology Business Research. In the mobile world, partnerships are important, given the emphasis users put on the ecosystem around a device. “Until now, we’ve seen Intel going it alone,” he said.
Speaking at IDF, Intel President and CEO Paul Otellini noted the significance of the Google alliance, saying it will help expand the reach of the Intel architecture. Neither he nor Andy Rubin, the senior vice president of mobile for Google who joined Otellini on stage, gave many details about the partnership. But Otellini did say he expects “multiple manufacturers worldwide” to come out with Intel-powered smartphones next year.
“The first [Intel] phones … will be all Android-based; hence the importance of the Google partnership,” he said.
A Time of Change
The Google alliance also comes at a time of change for Intel and some of its partners. In particular, the lengthy close relationship with Microsoft seems to be splintering to a degree.
Down in Los Angeles, during its BUILD conference, Microsoft officials were touting their upcoming Windows 8 operating system. While Windows 8 will run on Intel-based systems, it also will run on ARM devices, such as smartphones and tablets.
Like Intel, Microsoft has found itself on the outside of the mobile computing space. Its executives view the new functionality with ARM’s chips as its way in.
Intel is also stinging from the defection of Nokia, which earlier this year broke off its partnership to develop MeeGo with Intel in favor of Microsoft’s Windows Phone OS. At IDF, Otellini said MeeGo continues to be popular in the embedded systems space, particularly in such areas as the automotive industry.
However, he acknowledged that Nokia’s defection set back the development of the open-source OS by months. That said, Intel is still working with OEMs to bring MeeGo onto tablets and smartphones, he said.
Roger Kay, principal analyst with Endpoint Technologies Associates, doesn’t hold out a lot of hope for MeeGo’s future.
“MeeGo is quietly slipping into the background,” he said.
Otellini said that despite the head start ARM has in smartphones, the market is still fluid. “The smartphone business is not established in terms of the ultimate shakeout of who is going to win and who is going to lose,” he said, noting the strong showing Android now has in this space despite Apple’s strong start with the iPhone.
Meanwhile, “ultrabooks” will enable Intel to keep a strong grip on the PC market. Intel executives envision very light, thin devices that marry features found in tablets-such as long battery life and instant-on capabilities-with the advantages of traditional notebooks, including productivity and compatibility.
The first ultrabooks will appear this year from OEMs such as Asus, Lenovo and Toshiba. The next wave will come next year, powered by Intel’s upcoming “Ivy Bridge” chips. The third stage will come in 2013, powered by a “Haswell” chip that will offer huge gains in productivity and energy efficiency, Otellini said.
He dismissed the threat posed by ARM in the notebook space, even with the eventual arrival of Windows 8. Intel products are becoming increasingly power-efficient, and unlike ARM systems, they support 64-bit computing, as well as legacy workloads.
“The value of legacy … is pretty substantial, and I don’t think end users will walk away from that,” Otellini said. “I like our chances.”