Intel will make a major mobile push at the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show, where it will likely announce smartphone customers and show off a Windows 8 tablet with its upcoming Atom chip code-named Clover Trail, a person familiar with the company's plans said.
The customer announcements could be a precursor to availability of the first Intel Inside smartphones, which the chip maker said would ship in the first half of this year. Intel has already showed off a smartphone with its upcoming low-power Atom chip code-named Medfield and Google's Android OS, and more devices could be shown at CES in Las Vegas from 10 - 13 January.
Intel has been seeking a breakthrough in the smartphone space for more than two years, but handsets with Intel chips are not yet available. Intel in 2010 partnered with Nokia to develop the Linux-based MeeGo OS for smartphones, but Nokia abandoned the effort after adopting Microsoft's Windows Phone OS for future smartphones. Intel is now backing Google's Android OS after merging its MeeGo into the Tizen OS.
Intel is also seeking a breakthrough in tablets as device makers like Hewlett-Packard and Dell put their weight behind Microsoft's upcoming Windows 8 OS. Intel will likely show a prototype tablet running on the upcoming Atom chip code-named Clover Trail, which could reach tablets later this year in time with the release of Windows 8. Clover Trail will succeed Intel's current tablet chips code-named Oak Trail, which are found mostly in business tablets like Hewlett-Packard's Slate 2.
Atom taking on ARM
Atom came into existence years ago to ultimately address markets like tablets and smartphones, and CES will be a springboard to showcase progress, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research.
"You have to look at what's been going on with Atom and presence in non-PC computing space, whether it's tablets or phones -- it's evolutionary," McCarron said.
Intel's mobile push could raise the intensity of the battle with ARM, whose processors are found on most smartphones and tablets today, McCarron said. The battle has been simmering over the last few years, but will finally boil over as the year progresses.
"We're definitely seeing the stage set," McCarron said.
Many factors will converge to raise the stakes in the competition between ARM and Intel, with processors from the companies now supporting Windows 8. To counter Clover Trail, chip makers Nvidia and Qualcomm are expected to show prototype tablets based on ARM processors and running Windows 8 at CES. Speedy smartphones with quad-core ARM processors could also appear at the show.
But Intel will have to make a serious effort to convince phone makers to move away from ARM, which has an established software and hardware ecosystem, said Jack Gold, principal analyst at J. Gold Associates. The top phone makers like Samsung, Nokia, LG, Research In Motion, HTC and Apple all use ARM processors.
Usability and software remain key issues
Intel's Medfield chip consumes more power than ARM processors, but the draw is still low enough to bring the chip maker to the smartphone bracket. In the long run, Intel could catch up with ARM on power consumption because of advanced manufacturing technology, leaving software as the key issue, and Intel has to enable a mobile OS like Android to work better on its chips.
"It's that kind of usability issue - Web experience, graphics experience - that's going to be the key differentiator," Gold said. "Intel Inside in a phone, people don't care."
The Medfield chip is made using the 32-nanometer process, but Intel could bring big power savings to smartphone chips with the 22-nm process, when 3D transistors could reach smartphones. Intel's initial chips made using the 22-nm process will reach laptops and desktops in the first half this year.
Intel will keep pouring money into chasing the smartphone market as it is more meaningful in terms of volume and revenue, McCarron said. It's a lot easier to patch together a tablet, but takes longer for smartphones to ship with the months of validation and testing involved.