New deal: This prototype tablet, on display at the Intel Developer Forum, is powered by an Intel microprocessor and runs on the Android operating system.
Intel has announced a line of more power-efficient microprocessors for smart phones and tablets that could help recapture some of this increasingly valuable market segment. At the Intel Developers Forum (IDF) in San Francisco this week, the company also announced that it’s forming an alliance with Google to get the Android operating system released more quickly for Intel hardware.
Intel now finds itself in an unfamiliar, and uncomfortable, position. Having dominated the computer landscape for years by churning out faster and faster chips, it now lags behind in the race to create more energy-efficient microchips for smart phones and tablets—two rapidly growing hardware categories that are eating into sales of desktop and laptop computers.
The majority of smart phones and tablets on the market today, including the iPhone and iPad, use chips designed by ARM, a U.K. company that licenses microchip designs. Nvidia, Freescale, Texas Instruments, Samsung, and other companies manufacture ARM chips. The first Intel microchip aimed at the mobile market—the Atom—was released in 2008, but it proved less power-efficient than comparable ARM chips. Because battery life is prized in mobile devices, no major manufacturer is using Atom chips in its devices.
That could change next year. During his keynote speech at IDF 2011, Intel CEO Paul Otellini demonstrated a new version of Atom that promises to be much more power-efficient and capable than the original. The chip, code-named Medfield, is a refined Atom design that solves many issues that previously hurt the chip’s power efficiency. Otellini and Google’s Android chief, Andy Rubin, showed a prototype smart phone powered by the chip running the latest version of the Android operating system.
Intel and Google also announced on Tuesday that new versions of Android will be optimized for Intel hardware and released along with versions made for other hardware. That’s an important strategic move for Intel—in the past, it’s had to wait several months for new versions of Android to be ported to its hardware. The move could persuade hardware manufacturers to use Intel’s Atom instead of ARM-based chips, since they could launch their products more quickly. Intel-powered tablets running Android were also demoed on the floor of IDF 2011.