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article imageIntel hints it's quietly planning a return to mobile processors

By James Walker     Sep 20, 2016 in Technology
Earlier this year, Intel suddenly bowed out of the mobile processor market. It ceased development of its Atom chips for smartphones and tablets, ceding defeat to the likes of Qualcomm and MediaTek. It has now hinted it could return in the future.
Intel has scrapped its next-generation Atom processors that would have found their way into future phones, tablets and convertible PCs. Instead, it has refocused its mobile ambitions on modem manufacturing, a business that appears to be more successful than creating processors. Intel has attracted Apple to its modems for the iPhone 7.
This week, Venkata Renduchintala, president of Intel's Client and IoT division, addressed the company's departure from mobile in an interview with PCWorld. Renduchintala said the decision to axe the Atom chips was a result of rationalising the company's R&D spending. However, he said the current lack of mobile development doesn't mean Intel's out of the market for good. He hinted the company is already back at work, creating new products out of the public eye.
"We had a couple of mobile SoC products that I don't think were worthy to continue to conclusion," Renduchintala said in the interview. "That doesn't mean we're no longer doing mobile platforms. On the mobile platform side, my commitment is to talk less and do more. When we have something to say we'll talk about it."
Renduchintala described modems as a "fundamental technology" that's "as indelible for us as our competence in CPU or GPU." He said the company has a long-term road-map for its modem business and has already established itself with "credibility, relevance and importance" in the modem market.
Intel's processors dominate desktop machines but have never achieved the same success in mobile devices. Only a handful of smartphones have used an Intel chip. Intel was caught out by the rise of smartphones and didn't have a suitable processor design ready when manufacturers started to source CPUs. They turned to companies such as ARM which was touting low-power, high-efficiency designs far more suited to products requiring an all-day battery life.
Since then, Intel's technology has progressed considerably. Its ARM-rivalling Atom chips are a competent offering with considerable performance and efficiency. However, it came too late to the game and has never attracted significant manufacturer or developer attention. Its chips use a different architecture to ARM's ones and a lot of Android was never optimised for Intel's platform, due to a lack of demand.
If Intel returns to mobile processors, it will need a more compelling product than its recent generations of Atom chips. It could run into the same problems as before though, creating an architecture but failing to convince phone manufacturers to use it.
An alternative would be to license a design from ARM, creating a processor that's based on the same underlying structure as the CPUs already in Android and iOS phones and tablets. That could be an uncomfortable partnership for Intel but one that would at least give it a foothold in the mobile industry.
Renduchintala also touched on Intel's other new frontiers of development. The company is moving away from desktop processors towards opportunities such as self-driving cars and the Internet of Things. Renduchintala said autonomous urban transportation is probably "about a decade away." Intel is aiming to build a mainstream computing system "that dwarfs anything that exists in a car today" to power these new vehicles.
More about Intel, Processors, Mobile, Cpu, Arm
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