Mammoth chipmaker Intel continues to struggle with its expansion into mobile markets. Its x86 standard chips have not been well-suited for smartphones and tablets, and device makers are moving to ARM Holding's more power and efficient chip. Intel's latest effort to gain traction is a partnership with Motorola on a new Droid Razr smartphone.
Intel’s low-voltage mobile chip, dubbed Atom, has been around for several years. Yet, mobile-device makers have not jumped to it because its primary competitor, ARM's reduced-instruction-set chip, consumes less electricity than any of Intel's venerable x86 chip line.
ARM licenses its architecture to Qualcomm, Nvidia, Samsung and Texas Instruments. Pick up any touchscreen mobile device these days (including iPhones and iPads) and it is certain that it is running an ARM chip.
At an announcement in London today, Intel and Motorola announced the first smartphone from a major manufacturer to run on an Atom-based chip. The Droid Razr i looks almost identical to the Droid Razr M, which Motorola announced a couple weeks ago. It has the same body and same 4.3-inch screen in a compact, Kevlar-backed body.
The companies claim that the Razr i can achieve processing speeds of 2 GHz, which, if true, would make it the fastest smartphone on the market. Such speed would give the Razr i the ability to launch applications, such as camera and video-playback functions, almost instantaneously.
The Razr i will launch in October in European and Latin markets including the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Argentia, Brazil and Mexico.
“Intel has to prove that [its partnership] is not just a gimmick,” said mobile analyst Chetan Sharma. “What it comes down to is performance on the device and applications available on that platform.”
Nobody ever doubted that Intel’s chips could provide performance. Intel is the world leader in chips for personal computers, from the most advanced to the smallest netbook. ARM's chips are just more efficient with energy than the x86 line.
Intel's future in mobile won't improve until it changes that fact.
Choosing Motorola is astute for Intel. Motorola is the leader in smartphone battery life and efficiency. The compact Droid Razr M has a robust 2,000 mAh battery -- as good or better than the iPhone 5 and comparable to the Nokia Lumia 920. The same battery likely will be found in the Razr i. In fact, the Razr i battery may hide power-consumption problems that the Atom chip poses.
The Atom chip will also likely be able to run most applications in Android’s Google Play store, though there will probably be some hiccups. In the short term, no Android developers are going to go out of their way to optimize for an x86 chip.
Only two smartphones, the Razr i and one from European carrier Orange, will have Intel Atom chips. Developers go where the eyeballs are, and with virtually no Intel-based smartphones, there is no reason for them to look at Intel.
Other mobile carriers and smartphone makers no doubt feel the same way.
ARM chips can also produce dual- and quad-core processors that can run at nearly 2 GHz. ARM has also enabled a culture in which mobile manufacturers can release multiple products every year by tweaking the architecture of their ARM chips to fit specific functions. Intel has not shown that type of flexibility.
“If you look at any given quarter, these [other] companies are coming out with new products. They are all adding something to their devices, coming out with something that they think is going to be the market winner. So, all this stuff you have seen is much, much faster innovation than you've seen the x86 world deliver,” Jeff Chu, ARM's director of client computing, said in an interview with ReadWriteMobile in July.
Sharma believes that Intel will have to work in “baby steps” to succeed in mobile. Intel is saying that, "with Motorola, we are here and serious about mobile,” Sharma said.
Intel has set its hook in the water. Now it must wait to see what bites.