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TMCNet:  San Jose Mercury News Troy Wolverton column

[January 10, 2013]

San Jose Mercury News Troy Wolverton column

LAS VEGAS, Jan 10, 2013 (San Jose Mercury News - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Intel (INTC) may still be struggling to gain traction in the smartphone and tablet markets, but don't expect the company to radically change course.


The PC chipmaking giant has been trying for years to break into the post-PC computing market with almost no success. Apple (AAPL) reportedly considered using Intel chips in its first iPhone until Steve Jobs was talked out of the notion by other Apple executives. Other phone companies have needed less persuasion to avoid Intel, preferring to stick almost entirely to chips based on designs or technology from ARM.

But Erik Reid, who heads up Intel's smartphone and tablet efforts, believes success is just around the corner. In a meeting we had at the Consumer Electronics Show here Tuesday, Reid noted that there are now six phones and 10 tablets shipping that have Intel processors in them. (That doesn't include the numerous convertible PCs hitting the market that can act as tablets.) That may not sound like much, but a year ago there were no phones shipping that had Intel chips in them. So the company has made tangible -- if small -- progress.

What's more, Intel thinks the initial phones have shown its processors can compete head-to-head with the latest ARM designs, offering similar or better performance and battery life. In fact, comparisons between Motorola's Intel-based Razr I with its ARM-based Razr M have been largely favorable for the former.

"We proved that we could deliver power and performance and be competitive," Reid said.

The big difference between the phones is that Intel's version didn't support LTE, but the company is working on bringing LTE support this year. And Intel is moving to a new generation of process technology that promises faster, more power-efficient chips that could help it better compete with the highest-end ARM-based chips.

As a result, Intel plans to continue to pursue the smartphone and tablet markets. Some pundits have called on the company to abandon the effort to put its signature x86 chips in such devices and instead start manufacturing ARM chips itself for smartphones and tablets. But Reid dismissed that notion.

"We really believe in the value of the x86 architecture," he said. "We think we can deliver a superior value proposition." But Intel clearly still has a tough road in front of it. No Intel-based smartphone is being offered in the United States, and none of the major smartphone makers have embraced Intel chips. The two biggest -- Samsung and Apple -- are unlikely to do so anytime soon.

With ARM technology, smartphone makers can design and customize chips to meet their own specifications. Apple's devices, for example, famously run on Apple's own chips (that use ARM technology).

Smartphone makers can also choose from multiple providers for those chips, including Qualcomm, Samsung and Nvidia, instead of relying on just one vendor. With the various chipmakers emphasizing different features of their chips, smartphone makers can find the chips that best suit their needs.

Intel's chips can't offer such advantages. They come from just one vendor. And while Reid said that Intel talks extensively with customers to figure out which chip best meets their needs and to tune the software so the phone runs smoothly, customers don't necessarily get the chance to customize the chips themselves for their needs.

While Intel may be determined to hold its course, ARM, the designer of the chip architecture that dominates smartphones and tablets, has a message for the chip giant: Come and join us.

In a meeting I had here with James Bruce, ARM's lead mobile strategist, he declined to comment on whether that notion might soon become a possibility. But he cheered the idea.

Noting that Intel is reputed to have the best fabrication plants in the world, Bruce said that "surely they should put the best processor on it;" meaning, of course, an ARM-based one.

In our conversation, Bruce touted ARM's success and dismissed any notion that Intel is making any headway in the marketplace.

Some 7.9 billion (yes, with a "B") ARM-based chips were shipped inside various devices last year, more than half of them going into mobile phones and tablets. Only a portion of those chips were the high-powered application processors that Intel is trying to compete against. The chips shipped in smartphones included those used in their wireless radios, their touch-screen controls and other functions. But the company clearly dominates the smartphone market.

Contact Troy Wolverton at 408-840-4285 or twolverton@mercurynews.com. Follow him at www.mercurynews.com/troy-wolverton or Twitter.com/troywolv.

___ (c)2013 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) Visit the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) at www.mercurynews.com Distributed by MCT Information Services

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