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Intel is off to a bad start in the mobile market, and might not get to recover

July 26, 2012

No matter how hard Intel is trying, things don’t seem to go too well for them in the mobile market. According to sources quoted by Digitimes, the sales of the Intel-based smartphones aren’t going so well, and now two of their main partners, Motorola and Lenovo, are delaying their own Medfield-based tablets (and probably phones as well) at least until November.

At that point, we’ll probably be too impressed by the new Android 5.0 Nexus devices, featuring chips like the S4 Pro, Exynos 5250 and even OMAP 5, to care for Medfield phones running Jelly Bean. So things aren’t looking too bright for Intel in the future, either. But why is Intel, such a big company with a huge war chest, and a leader in the (x86) chip market, having such a hard time entering the mobile market?

Just because a company utterly dominates a certain market, it doesn’t mean that it will be successful in other markets by default. Throwing money at the problem will do nothing, if Intel can’t create a chip that is competitive against ARM’s mobile designs.

There are other things to consider, such as the fact that ARM has a unique business model, where there are a lot of ARM chip makers, all competing with each other and on price. As a result, ARM is very hard to beat, because Intel isn’t fighting just one company like AMD, but a whole bunch of ARM chip makers at once. Plus, why would phone makers give away the flexibility and power they get from the status quo, and risk getting locked by Intel, like PC manufacturers?

So, why would a manufacturer go with an Intel chip, if it doesn’t offer any technical advantages over ARM chips? Should they go with Intel just because of its brand recognition? The Intel name means nothing in the mobile market, and most end users don’t know what chip their phone has, nor do they care.

Intel plans to release a Clover Trail dual-core chip for the end of the year and the Windows 8 launch, but that’s not a “mobile” chip like Medfield. It’s a lot less power efficient, going up to 8-10W TDP. This chip is definitely not meant for Android tablets, but for Windows 8 ones. On Android tablets, it would be painfully obvious how low the battery life is compared to other ARM tablets. But on Windows, Intel can at least say they enable desktop apps, and they need the extra oomph for running Windows.

On Android, I don’t think Intel has any chance to get popular anymore, and if Windows 8 fails in the market, things will go downhill fast for both Microsoft and Intel.