intel at ces phonesMark Hachman

Intel, Rockchip forge partnership to boost Android tablets

Chinese fabless microprocessor company Rockchip will design and sell embedded processors based on Intel's Atom chips to its own customers in the low-end Android market, the two companies said Tuesday.

The strategic agreement between the two companies appears to involve Rockchip's design capabilities, plus its own network of established sales relationships within Asia. They will be branded as Intel chips, however. With the announcement, Intel said that it will add a third, quad-core chip to its SoFIA lineup of integrated processors, which will combine both Intel's own Atom processor with its own embedded modems. The SoFIA line is scheduled to ship in 2015.

The idea, according to chief executive Brian Krzanich, was to quickly expand into China and take advantage of Rockchip's established relationships with tablet makers there. "It's a great way to get in there and make additional products to add to our roadmap," Krzanich said in a conference call. "Look at this as an addition to our roadmap, not as a change."

"We looked at this purely at access and speed to those markets," Krzanich added later.

Hardware makers value integrated systems-on-chip (SoCs) to reduce cost and board space, resulting in smaller, cheaper tablets and smartphones for consumers. To date, Intel has offered discrete radio components and Atom processors, but not an integrated solution. That will change next year with the SoFIA's introduction.

Intel already sells its Atom chips to Lenovo, which has quietly risen to become the fourth-largest smartphone vendor in the world. But Rockchip, an ARM vendor focused on the low-end market that currently dominates Android tablet sales, would be a first for Intel. Krzanich said on the call that the fastest-growing market for Android tablets is the sub-$150, and most likely the sub-$100 segment.

Intel has made it clear that it's courting the Android market in a bid to increase market share.

“We are excited to work with Rockchip. With today’s announcement we’ve added yet another derivative to the Intel SoFIA family, and we expect to have them all in market before the middle of 2015," Krzanich added in a statement. "We are moving with velocity to grow Intel’s offerings for the growing global tablet market.”

Intel's SoFIA family is now expected to consist of three different offerings, Intel said: the dual-core 3G version expected to ship in the fourth quarter of this year; the new, Intel-branded quad-core 3G version with Rockchip that is expected to ship in the first half of 2015; and the LTE version, also due in the first half of next year.

Krzanich said that the agreement doesn't preclude Intel from forging similar agreements with other vendors, or from Rockchip to co-design additional chips, such as integrating an LTE component. The new quad-core chip was the "right product with the right features at the right cost -- that's really what's critical at the market," he said.

Updated at 10:46 AM with additional comments from Intel's Krzanich.

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