Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Intel's new chips will be in your laptop but not your mobile

From February 2011, Intel will start shipping the 2nd generation (Sandy Bridge) Core i3/i5/i7 processors for laptops and PCs. SandyBridge was exhaustively previewed by AnandTech last year, and praised for the enhanced speed, better graphics, gaming performance and lower power consumption. It's a worthy upgrade to the current range and best of all, the first wave of new processors will be affordable mid-range ones aimed at performance mainstream notebooks/ PCs.

Intel continues to superpower our laptops and netbooks, but why are there no Intel chips in mobiles and tablets? Why has the company stayed out of this rapidly growing, dynamic market segment?

Intel is a monopoly market leader for processors manufactured on x86 architecture. But currently, mobile devices use processors based on ARM architecture which is favored for its high performance to power ratios. ARM gained a big edge because of its adoption by Apple for iPhone and iPad; other manufacturers followed suit.

The source of the ARM architecture is Arm Holdings, a Cambridge (UK) based company. As Steve Cheney points out in his blog, Arm does not make processors; instead, for a small fee, it licenses the architecture to chipmakers like QualComm, Samsung, Texas Instruments and NVidia who in turn manufacture and sell to makers of mobile phones, tablets etc.

Again referencing Steve's blog, Intel once had ARM-based chips, but exited the  business in 2006, to concentrate on PCs,laptops and servers, rather than the nascent mobile market. The rest is history - Intel dominated these segments, until the smartphone and then the tablet revolution came out of nowhere, spearheaded by Apple. Reports for 2010 show that PC sales are still strong, but analysts are predicting that in the next few years, the number of mobile devices will overtake PCs. This seems likely as handhelds can completely replace netbooks, substitute a second laptop/ desktop and offer the additional convenience of portability.

At CES 2010, Intel had introduced the Atom Moorestown chips for mobile devices, and indicated that they would be put into mobiles by 2011, but the company has kept very low key at CES this year. Wonder if and when these chips will actually get into action.

Meanwhile, Intel has been focusing on areas beyond processors as engines of future growth. This article on Ars Technica points out how Intel has evolved beyond a pure chip manufacturer into platforms, software and services.


The obvious danger in this route, is that when you expand beyond your core competency, you may lose focus on it. For the majority of us, Intel is still a chip company. We buy Intel chips in our PCs and would have probably bought them on our cellphones, even at a slight premium. And whether Intel acknowledges it or not, that is an opportunity lost - and one they hopefully still intend to capitalise on. It's not too late!