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Qualcomm and Intel go head-to-head in mobile internet devices

Killer phones or kill-a-phone?

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The convergence of PC and cellphone architectures has brought Intel and Qualcomm increasingly into conflict, and at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week, both showed prototypes of their platforms for next generation mobile devices.

Both silicon giants, along with device makers like Nokia, see the current notebooks and smartphones evolving into what Intel calls an ultramobile PC (UMPC), Nokia a multimedia computer or internet tablet, and Qualcomm a pocketable computer.

And both need desperately to take pole position in chips for these devices as they emerge from this year, as by the time UMPCs achieve mass market status – probably from 2011 – their traditional revenue streams will be stagnating.

Qualcomm’s COO Sanjay Jha showed off a prototype ‘pocketable computer’, saying “if you can't carry it in your pocket, you can't carry it with you”.

Predictably enough, the device has a slide-out qwerty keyboard and supports HSPA, GPS, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. It has an 800 pixel screen designed to support viewing of regular, rather than specifically mobile, websites.

The initial operating system is Windows Mobile – not too surprising, given Qualcomm’s low profile but long term closeness to Microsoft, and the fact the CDMA giant has not really shown its hand yet on Mobile Linux, unlike Intel and Nokia, which are increasingly including the open source OS in their strategies. Also, with the immature and fragmented state of Mobile Linux, it is currently easier to demonstrate an impressive UMPC platform using Windows Mobile.

The key chip for these devices will be Snapdragon, arguably Qualcomm’s most critical current product, as it will underpin many of the company’s important moves to diversify its business into areas such as UMPCs and consumer electronics. Indeed, Jha fuelled the rumor mill by naming Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader as an example of a non-phone device that could use Snapdragon.

The pocketable PC prototype shown in Las Vegas, codenamed Anchorage, sported a 1GHz processor claiming peak power of 0.5W, talking up Qualcomm’s claims that Snapdragon will steal a march on rivals in the all-important power/performance ratio, an area where Intel is also making bold claims for its forthcoming 'Menlow' architecture.

Samsung and HTC are the first publicly announced OEMs for the design underpinning Anchorage, and expect commercial devices late this year, aiming to leap in before companies like Apple, which is rumored to be readying a UMPC-style product for late 2008.

Jha said that, in the medium term, he would target volumes of about 200m for Anchorage or its successors – about the total current base of high end smartphones, as compared to 1.3bn cellphones overall.

Contest with Intel

Neither Qualcomm nor Intel was shy about recognizing the other as the key enemy. Despite the distance opening up between Texas Instruments and Nokia, it remains highly likely that the Finnish giant will rely heavily on its old familiar for future mobile PC developments, and unless this policy changes radically – potentially because Nokia and Intel come to a détente that, arguably, both need to wrongfoot Qualcomm – TI’s own R&D program will remain strongly influenced by Nokia.

Jha and Intel CEO Paul Otellini made similar points in setting out their respective competitive positions, emphasizing the benefits of their particular heritages. Jha, generally the friendly face of Qualcomm, was diplomatic. "We come at this problem from an understanding of wireless," he said. "Intel comes at it from an understanding of computing. We both bring different things to the table. Time will tell how our vision works versus Intel's direction."

He even praised Nokia’s major device in this category, the N800, saying (as Nokia is reticent to do) that it had outsold expectations.

Otellini made the opposite point: “It's a lot easier to add communications to a small computer than add computing to a small phone,'' he said in his keynote, where he introduced Menlow. “It's a major element in our growth strategy.”

While nobody could doubt Qualcomm’s mobile credentials, Otellini had the difficult job of instilling confidence in Intel’s, given that its last $5bn adventure in the cellphone market, in the form of its XScale processor family, ended in disappointing sales and the offloading of the unit to Marvell in June 2006 for $600m.

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