Intel Shifts Focus to Atom, Mobile Devices

While the first part of the Intel Developer Forum focused on Intel processors for desktops, notebooks and server systems, the second day shifts focus to the Intel Atom processor and a new generation of mobile Internet devices or MIDs that Intel hopes vendors will develop using the Atom chip. The second phase of the Atom processor rollout is scheduled for 2009 with the debut of the Moorestown platform, which will use a new processor called Lincroft.

SAN FRANCISCO-After focusing on mainstream processor technology for PCs and servers, the Intel Developer Forum shifted focus to the Intel Atom processor that has been built for a new generation of mobile Internet devices, or MIDs.

During his Aug. 20 keynote here, Anand Chandrasekhar, an Intel senior vice president and head of the Ultra Mobility Group, detailed Intel's vision for the Atom processor and how the market for mobile Internet devices will form as Intel prepares to release a updated MID platform called "Moorestown" in 2009 that will feature a new Atom chip. During his keynote, Chandrasekhar showed off the first wafer that contained the new MID processor called "Lincroft."

The world that Intel Atom is being brought into is being shaped by the ever-developing Web and the desire of users, whether enterprise or consumer, to untether the new capabilities of the Internet-high-definition video, social networking, user-generated content-from conventional PCs. While notebooks are one way to have a mobile Internet, Intel believes that users desire even more mobile devices, said Chandrasekhar.

With that in mind, Chandrasekhar sees MIDs based on Atom splitting into types made for three specific areas. One type is for the enterprise, with devices that are designed for specific vertical markets, such as health care and government. The best example to date is what Panasonic has done with Atom to develop a rugged MID for government workers called the Toughbook CF-U1, which is essentially an ultraportable notebook.

The second type of MID is for consumers and comprises a number of mobile devices that range from GPS devices to MIDs that are just used to browse the Internet, play games or download videos from YouTube.

The third, and perhaps the most important, group is made up of those devices that bridge the gap between smart phones and MIDs, which is what Apple has tried to create with the iPhone. (The speculation is that Intel is looking to create a platform based on the Atom x86 architecture that would fit into the iPhone, which currently uses an ARM processor.)

There are two problems with the Intel vision of MIDs at this point. The first is that these first-generation devices remain a niche product. Although more of these mobile devices are starting to appear in Asia, with vendors such as Lenovo, Asustek Computer and Clarion leading the charge, they have not yet caught on in United States.

"MIDs are a bit of a tough sell to start with, at least for general-purpose computing," said Michael Feibus, an analyst with TechKnowledge Strategies. "If it can't fit in your pocket, then you're going to have to deal with it not unlike [how] you deal with a notebook ... It's a victim of its own form factor and they [Intel] said as much when they said this is what we have now, but wait to see what's next when we have one-tenth the battery consumption and 10 times the performance."

The second issue is software, and Intel used this year's IDF to persuade developers to write applications based on Atom, which uses standard Intel Architecture.

At IDF, Intel showed off an MID that uses the beta version of Adobe Flash 10, which should entice some developers into the Intel camp. At the same time, Intel highlighted some ISVs that have already begun developing applications for Intel Atom devices, such as Gypsii, which is developing social networking applications, and game developer Fuel Industries.

The counter to Intel's vision is Nvidia's Tegra platform, which uses an ARM CPU combined with a low-watt Nvidia GeForce graphics processing unit. While developers have been working to develop applications for ARM-based devices, Intel is betting that an x86-based device will offer advantages to developers who want to write applications that work on more than one platform.

"Compatibility matters, and when you move outside the IA realm errors increase when you try to run the Internet," Chandrasekhar said. "As the Internet moves along, even as innovation happens on other architectures and platforms, the Internet evolution continues to move along and it's not stagnant and that evolution is happening on IA. IA matters because compatibility matters."

Since Atom is designed for MIDs, low-cost notebooks or "netbooks" and devices that use embedded processors, and can support both Linux and Microsoft Windows operating systems, Chandrasekhar concluded that "from an ISV standpoint, you write once and it works on all of these."

While the Atom processor is working in netbooks and MIDs at this point, Intel also has plans to bring the processor into the embedded space with a new SOC (system on a chip) design that will bring the Atom processor into a wider range of consumer electronic devices and smart phones. The first of these embedded designs will use a Pentium core and has already been released, and the Atom-based design is likely to follow in either 2009 or 2010.

Editor's Note: This story was updated to include comments from an analyst.