Intel hopes for smartphone breakthrough with Google

A smartphone with an Intel chip and Google Android will ship in the first half of 2012

Intel hopes to boost its business selling chips to phone makers -- now the domain of rival ARM -- through a partnership announced this week with Google to develop future Android OS versions for mobile devices with Intel chips.

Intel and Google will jointly tune Android code at the kernel and driver level so future Android versions work with Intel-based smartphones and tablets. The partnership was announced at the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco, where Intel showed working units of a smartphone with Android 2.3, code-named Gingerbread, and a tablet with Android 3.0, code-named Honeycomb. Both the devices ran on an Intel Atom chip code-named Medfield.

Intel officials said a smartphone with Medfield and Android would come in the first half next year.

Intel has made runs at the smartphone market over the past two years, but no handsets with Intel chips are yet available. Intel last year 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.

The partnership with Google shows that Intel is serious about smartphones and on target to deliver a handset next year, said Dave Whalen, vice president of the Intel Architecture Group and general manager of the Ultra Mobility Group, in an interview.

"What this does specifically for the phone business is it validates to the marketplace and most importantly to the ecosystem that Intel is now in business," Whalen said, adding that the company was standing behind the development of MeeGo.

Intel's Atom chips are considered more power-hungry than ARM processors, which are in most smartphones today. But Whalen said that the Medfield chip is competitive, and that phone chips would improve over time as Intel engineers chips to smaller geometries, which would help reduce power consumption and drive up performance.

"Everybody is interested in alternatives," Whalen said. "The OEMs that we are working with that looked at our road map feel comfortable that it's going to be competitive."

Intel is pinning its hopes on its manufacturing technology, which it advances every two years, to catch up with ARM on power efficiency. The Medfield chip is manufactured using the 32-nanometer manufacturing process. New Atom designs are under development for the 22-nm process, with manufacturing beginning late this year. Intel will use the 14-nm process for its Atom processors by 2014.

The Intel-Google deal will help the chip maker design better phone chips optimized to run the software, said Dadi Perlmutter, executive vice president of the Intel Architecture Group, in an interview.

Moreover, Intel has an advantage over ARM of having software engineers, chip designers and manufacturing experts in-house, which in the long run will be an advantage for the company over ARM, Perlmutter said. ARM licenses processor designs to chip makers, who then hire third-party fabs to make the chips.

"I think it is a juggernaut that is going to be hard for ARM to duplicate. They don't have the capabilities Intel has," Perlmutter said.

The Intel-Google partnership brings OS stability to mobile devices with Intel chips, but what it means to end users is yet to be seen, said Michael Gartenberg, technology analyst at Gartner.

"It makes sense as it extends the reach of both Android to new processors and Intel chips to new platforms, especially for Intel now that MeeGo has very little momentum behind it," Gartenberg said.

The partnership benefits Intel's developer partners, who can move on without worrying about MeeGo's uncertainty, said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT. With more users adopting mobile devices, there's room for Intel to compete with ARM. ARM may be difficult to unseat though, King said.

"ARM certainly got first-mover status and they've enjoyed huge benefits there. But I don't believe in counting Intel out," King said.

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