Intel's Mobile Foray Is Too Little, Too Late

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Intel's new "Medfield" smartphone chip will begin to appear in handset devices in the second half of next year, president and CEO Paul Otellini announced on Wednesday.

Speaking at the Barclays Capital Global Technology Conference in San Francisco, Otellini reportedly declined to name specific manufacturers, but he did say that his company's Atom-based Medfield processor would be appearing in devices from "premiere" brands.

In the tablet space, meanwhile, Intel will see its Oak Trail and Moorestown chips in no fewer than 35 consumer-focused devices appearing in the first half of next year from manufacturers including Toshiba, Lenovo, Dell and Asus, Otellini reportedly said.

That may all sound like good news for Intel, whose arrival in the mobile arena is long overdue. The truth is, however, Intel faces a very tough battle ahead. While its Atom chips dominate the netbook world, smartphone and tablet makers have almost exclusively embraced the lower cost and more power-efficient chips based on ARM instead.

Can Intel catch up at this point? I'm inclined to think not.

An Army of Chips

With chips for just about every mobile device out there, ARM thoroughly dominates its market, powering roughly 95 percent of the world's mobile handsets and more than a quarter of all electronic devices.

It's not hard to see why, either. The relatively simple, low-power and low-cost chips provide excellent performance for such devices while enabling manufacturers to keep costs and power needs attractively low. With versions created by licensees including Apple, Samsung and Qualcomm, ARM is essentially a diverse army with a broad presence throughout the mobile arena.

As a testament to the architecture's continuing dominance, in fact, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company-- which produces ARM chips for a variety of companies--is planning capacity increases targeting Apple's iPhone and iPad, in particular. Intel's chip market share has slipped this year, meanwhile, even as Samsung's has grown, Gartner just reported.

It won't be long, I expect, before ARM chips become commonplace in PCs and even servers as well, particularly given the growing popularity of Ubuntu and other Linux distributions, which don't require the expensive horsepower that Windows does.

End of a Monopoly

In any case, Intel's Medfield chip is its first real foray into the smartphone arena, and I believe it's too little, too late. Even if it does manage to compete with ARM on power-efficiency and cost, that will no longer be enough, since ARM has already been offering those advantages for some time and achieved dominance because of them.

Smartphones are expected to outpace PCs in shipments next year, and tablets are on their way. As PCs gradually fade into the background--and particularly as less resource-hungry operating systems such as Linux and Android continue to gain ground--the Wintel monopoly's days are numbered.

When it comes to mobile, both Microsoft and Intel have missed the boat.

Follow Katherine Noyes on Twitter: @Noyesk.

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