Intel Overclocks To Go Beyond The PC

Sep 26, 2009 (05:09 AM EDT)

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The Intel Developer Forum showed that the chip-making giant is overclocking its product development efforts to blitz the smartphone and consumer electronics market.

Even though PC and server chips account for the bulk of Intel's revenue, executives at the San Francisco event last week made it clear that the company believed the future lies in markets where Intel has very little presence. To change that around, Intel had one word: Atom.

The low-power processor that ships today in most netbooks is being down-sized quickly to fit into smartphones and CE devices, particularly high-definition TVs and set-top boxes. Intel expects both markets to help keep its revenue-generating engine running in high gear as growth in the aging PC market grows.

"The PC market in general isn't going to grow as quickly as it used to," John Spooner, analyst for Technology Business Research, said. "It's that simple. They need to expand their base to keep growing."

In 2010, Intel plans to release Moorestown, codename for the company's second-generation platform for handheld devices. The platform comprises a system-on-chip that integrates a 45-nanometer Atom, a graphics processor, memory controller, and video encoder/decoder.

But Intel plans to release its big gun in 2011. Codenamed Medfield, the third-generation of the platform will be a 32-nm, Atom-based system-on-chip that will likely be Intel's first real competitor to the ARM architecture that dominates the smartphone market today through a variety of vendors, such as Broadcom, Qualcomm, Samsung and Texas Instruments.

In addition, Intel has partnered with Nokia, the world's largest mobile-phone maker, in developing its technology for the smartphone.

"There's people who believe there's no way Intel can come in," Gartner analyst Leslie Fiering said. "But Intel is very serious in designing for the smartphone, and when they get there, they will bring development tools and a lot of (processing) power to burn."

Indeed, Intel at IDF launched a developer program offering a framework for creating and selling software for Atom-powered netbooks now, with plans to extend the program to handheld devices and smartphones in the future.

While developing hardware for smartphones, Intel also plans to take its open-source operating system Moblin to handhelds. Even though Intel will support any OS that a vendor wants to run on its chips, the company believes that many device manufacturers will want hardware and software in a single package.

"Intel really needs to present this as a platform, and tell OEMs, 'Here, go knock yourself out,'" Spooner said.

In consumer electronics, Intel launched at IDF its first Atom-based system-on-chip for Internet-enabled TVs and set-top boxes. Executives introduced the CE4100 as the foundation on which to run future applications that merge television with the Web. Adobe, CBS and Cisco supported Intel's efforts at IDF.

Intel's hunger for the smartphone and HDTV markets make sense, given their growth even in the economic recession. In the second quarter of this year, smartphone shipments worldwide grew by more than 13%, compared to the same period a year ago, according to Canalys.

Meanwhile, global shipments of LCD TVs, the market-leading HDTV, rose by more than 14% in the second quarter from the previous quarter, according to iSuppli.

Given Intel's determination to extend its reach way beyond the PC, time is running out for competitors such as ARM to build up their defenses. "It leaves ARM at least a year to deliver better capabilities itself," Spooner said. "Clearly, Intel is targeting ARM."

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