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

Killer phones or kill-a-phone?

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Intel re-enters mobile

Otellini was keen to imply that XScale had been targeting the cellphone in its current form, which is an area where Intel had no experience, but that Menlow is focused on the future form of the mobile device, and this is one that Intel aims to define in its own image, playing to its PC strengths. "What we are focused on now is where we think phones are going, not where they are today," Otellini said in an interview at CES. "In the past, we aimed at building yet another chipset for phones."

Five mobile chips, codenamed 'Silverthorne', which will underpin the Menlow mobile internet platform as well as future notebooks, were unveiled. All were built using the company’s latest 45nm process, for improved power/performance ratio. Commercial devices based on Menlow are expected late this year, and Apple is rumored as an early adopter, while Lenovo and Toshiba were among the supporters at CES.

Intel now has three low-power mobile internet device reference platforms - 'McCaslin', Menlow and 'Moorestown'. Menlow consists of a Silverthorne processor, a support chip called 'Poulsbo' for I/O and graphics, and a communications module that can be support Wi-Fi or WiMax (or, in future, other systems). Moorestown combines the functionality of at least the first two chips into one for even lower power consumption.

3G support?

The big question is when (or if) Intel will incorporate 3G into its devices. Currently, it is attempting the ambitious feat of trying to claim the high end mobile market entirely for Wi-Fi and WiMax, technologies over which it has a large measure of control, sidelining 3G (and Qualcomm and TI) into lower end voice-oriented phone markets.

This is almost certain to prove a failure, since even Intel must recognize that next generation mobility will be about multiple networks. The real future must lie in chipsets that intelligently move between these, and both Qualcomm and Intel itself have important software defined radio developments. Intel’s dilemma is whether to play directly in 3G, where it has failed before, or to win strong market share for Wi-Fi/WiMax devices and then focus on dominating the whole range of networks once SDR and new networks like LTE evolve.

This more gradual approach has strong commercial logic, but is high risk in terms of ceding market share at a critical point in the mobile market’s evolution to TI and Qualcomm. This remains a tricky issue, and Intel’s last effort to bridge the divide between cellular and all- IP networks, its venture with Nokia to put HSPA in notebooks, collapsed under the weight of its conflicts of interest.

Otellini has a tough job this year, with many of Intel’s recent growth drivers, notably Centrino, facing maturity, slower growth rates and falling margins. Analysts estimate Intel's revenue growth will slow to 6.1 per cent in 2009, according to Bloomberg, down from an average of 13 per cent between 2003 and 2006, the heyday of Centrino wireless laptops. As well as UMPCs, WiMax is of course a high profile, and high risk, element in the growth building strategy.

Even this is a field where Intel may soon have to contend with Qualcomm. Although the latter has been fierce in its opposition to WiMax in the mobile market, if it sees 802.16e gaining momentum it will undoubtedly want to play, as it reluctantly did in Wi-Fi, despite the technologies being at odds with its own roadmaps and IPR practices.

Jha said, in one of the most definite statements yet that Qualcomm has not closed the door on WiMax: "We're working on WiMax as well but our priority is clearly 3G.” Meanwhile, Intel will support Mobile WiMax in its upcoming Montevina notebook platform, due next quarter, which is the latest iteration of Centrino.

It is also likely to deliver WiMax to UMPCs during 2008 via Menlow. Intel’s WiMax radio is called Baxter Peak and will be used by Nokia in its initial WiMax products, due later this year. Montevina can optionally use 'Echo Peak', a mini-PCI card that integrates WiMax and Wi-Fi on one chip.

Copyright © 2008, Wireless Watch

Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here.

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