Intel isn’t in your phone, but it wants to be in your smartpants

smartpants headerIntel wants its chips to power your smartphone, but it’s not having much luck. Though it’s the dominant maker of desktop and laptop processors, it’s a bit player in mobile phones. Rivals like Qualcomm, Nvidia, MediaTek, and others control 95 percent of the smartphone chip market, and Intel is struggling to make any meaningful progress to turn that around. Intel missed the smartphone boat. But, there’s another boat coming along soon, and Intel already has its tickets booked.

Intel missed the smartphone boat. But, there’s another boat coming along soon, and Intel already has its tickets booked.

Instead of smartphones, Intel looks to be targeting what could be the next big thing in tech – wearables, but rather than dedicate itself to the market, we could see it use wearable tech as a way to come at the mobile industry from another direction. Sort of like becoming best mates with the sibling of the person you’re trying to date. As it’s still early days for wearable tech, Intel has the opportunity to be in at the start, and not face such a gargantuan task of playing catchup like it has been forced to do in the mobile industry.

Wearables may look like Intel’s new favorite, but it’s still hard at work on mobile chips – concentrating not on America or the UK, but China, Asia, Africa and the Middle East – and Tizen, its somewhat stalled mobile OS project. Intel’s mobile strategy looks like a tech trifecta, and the bets are on for wearables to come in first, Atom processors to cross the line second, and at the moment, Tizen bringing up the rear in third. However, does Intel want wearables to lead the race until the last corner, before letting Atom through to win the race?

A key battleground for mobile players

Most recently, Intel’s intentions regarding wearable tech has been highlighted by Intel’s new CEO Brian Krzanich, who in an interview with Reuters said he expected Intel chips would start to appear in, “items for eyes and ears,” at the end of 2013 and into early 2014. He specifically mentioned wristbands and watches, admitted he was a Google Glass user, and called the wearable computing market, “A key battleground for mobile industry players.”

However, this was far from the first mention of wearable tech by an Intel executive. In January, Intel’s CTO Justin Rattner told InformationWeek.com wearables would, “Come on strong in the next couple of years,” and that research into such devices was, “Gaining momentum inside Intel Labs.” Later, in June, Rattner talked to The Guardian, commenting on how important the flow of data is going to be when we all start wearing our gadgets, and how it could be stored in the cloud to make wearable devices smarter, and more useful. He described a fully fledged digital assistant, with its knowledge coming from data you share with social networks, photos, emails, and even biometrics from fitness devices.

I’m an engineer, a mathematician, technician and a visioneer

Intel acknowledges we’ll have to want to wear these futuristic products for this to work, making design as important as technical innovation. At the beginning of 2011, Intel appointed a new Director of Creative Innovation, who has subsequently becoming quite the chatterbox regarding smart wear. Of course, that man is Will.i.am, and in in August 2012 – prior to Rattner’s comments above – spoke at an Intel conference on the subject. In the interview, he discussed wireless payment technology, smart watches, and wondered why everything we wear shouldn’t become, “smart,” from earrings to the lapel on a jacket.

Interestingly, Will.i.am’s fascination with smart wear continued outside of his Intel remit, when in early 2013 he launched the foto.sosho range of iPhone camera cases. While the products are not wearable, he said they were an early step into the, “Marriage of technology and fashion.” He went on to, in a roundabout way, describe himself as a trendsetter, ready to influence the masses and, “Create a movement, an aesthetic, around wearable technology.” If Will.i.am’s creative flair and Intel’s tech prowess can be focused on a common goal, the results could be fascinating.

Where are the Intel-powered smart devices?

At the moment, all this talk is very interesting, but where are devices with Intel chips inside? Google Glass is based on ARM architecture, as are Vuzix’s smart specs, the Pebble smart watch, and the I’m Watch. However, while it looks like Intel’s off to a bad start already, the only device on the list which could make a serious impact is Google Glass. Another point raised by Rattner in his interview was that we shouldn’t expect wearable tech to replace smartphones or other personal electronics very soon, and that he hadn’t seen anything which suggested a, “major revolution,” was imminent. It could certainly be argued that as truly influential wearable technology products haven’t arrived, Intel isn’t at a disadvantage …yet.

Intel’s global investment division, Intel Capital, recently announced it closed a $14.5 million funding round for Thalmic Labs, makers of the exciting MYO armband. The MYO bracelet monitors the electrical impulses made by your muscles to wirelessly control computers, smartphones and all kinds of other devices using gestures. It’s sci-fi tech at its very best, and now, with Intel’s backing, Thalmic can take advantage of Intel’s manufacturing and technology expertise to make their product even better. So, is this going to be one of the first Intel-powered devices? Nope, according to Thalmic’s website, the MYO currently has an ARM processor.

Intel has also snapped up Israeli firm Omek Interactive, a gesture control specialist, for a reported $40 to $50 million. However, unlike MYO, Omek makes solely close-range systems which are incorporated into computers, tablets and even televisions, rather than a watch or bracelet. However, it’s speculated Intel may want to build the technology into its chips, thus giving hardware makers the chance to incorporate a gesture control system in potentially any form factor they like, and another reason to choose Intel power.

So, does all this mean Intel has given up on smartphones? No, not in the least. Krzanich said under his command, Atom chips would have the same level of attention as its Core PC chips, so could it be using smart devices like watches and eyewear to double back, and have a second go at making significant headway in the mobile processor market? It’s important to remember the majority of wearable devices on the horizon connect to a smartphone, and if there are advantages to using Intel chips in each device, customers and manufacturers may start to embrace Intel power.

As to what Intel may be able to offer loops back to Rattner’s comments on the importance of data, and to Intel’s research into Wi-Fi Radio, WiGig, biometrics, and Smart Connect. All of these facilitate the fast, secure and simple transfer of data between devices, enable remote operation, plus make super-fast wireless docking between computers, smartphones, and wearables a reality. Krzanich mentioned in his Reuters interview he wanted to, “create an ecosystem,” and by bringing all these aspects together across a range of smart devices would do exactly that.

Intel targets emerging markets

An assault on what could be the consumer electronics hit of the next few years is only one part of Intel’s wide-ranging mobile strategy. There are two other notable areas where Intel is making progress: emerging markets, and a recently reaffirmed commitment to Tizen, Intel’s mobile OS joint venture with Samsung.

Ever since it revealed the Medfield processor at the start of 2012, Intel has plowed the majority of its efforts into markets other than America and the UK. Its first major partnership announcement was with Lava, an Indian brand, and has since signed deals with everyone from ZTE, Acer, and Lenovo, to Chinese search engine Baidu (where the aim is to write mobile apps together), African network Safaricom, and Egyptian network Etisalat Misr. At CES 2013, Intel announced the Atom Z2420 Lexington, a chip specifically designed for phones headed to emerging markets where low-cost phones outsell expensive hardware. The processor has since been seen in the Safaricom Yolo (yes, that really is its name), which sold out in just two weeks, the Lava Xolo X500, the Acer Liquid C1, and most recently, the Asus Fonepad tablet.

Intel hasn’t forgotten about high-end smartphones, and the impressive Lenovo K900 has recently been launched in China, Thailand and Malaysia, with another ten markets including Russia planned before the end of the year. It has even roped in NBA player Kobe Bryant to promote the phone in China and Asia. Lenovo’s a good partner to have, as it holds second place in the Chinese mobile market, and in the second quarter of 2013, became the world’s number one PC manufacturer. Next year will see the first smartphones using the next-generation Merrifield processor go on sale, potentially inside its own reference design hardware.

Intel is doing its best to gain an early advantage in the world’s largest and least exploited mobile markets, which certainly sounds like a solid strategy; however there could be another reason why it’s hesitant to release even high-end phones like the K900 in America or the UK: the lack of 4G LTE connectivity. Even though it has teased 4G LTE tablets for release this year, it still hasn’t confirmed the same capability will be coming to Merrifield-powered phones. Last year, it was a bit of a problem, this year it’s becoming embarrassing, and next year it could have serious ramifications, even in some of Intel’s beloved emerging markets.

Tizen needs some pizzazz if it’s to be welcomed

Finally, Intel’s got Tizen, the mobile OS project which it’s working on with Samsung. However, of the four new operating systems expected to launch this year, and despite the money behind it, Tizen appears to have stalled. Firefox OS devices are already on sale, and Jolla’s Sailfish OS-powered phone has enjoyed a well publicized pre-order campaign, but Tizen has been plagued by delays, and in the last few weeks, spurious rumors of its cancellation.

Instead of smartphones, Intel looks to be targeting what could be the next big thing in tech – wearables…

Tizen looks like a decent operating system, and Intel’s own Obsidian user interface looks suitably funky, but its problem isn’t its capabilities or the type of hardware on which it will launch (a high-end Galaxy S4-alike if Samsung has its way), but one of perception. The mobile world is already ruled by giant corporations, and what draws people to Jolla, Firefox and Ubuntu is, in part, their indie roots. Tizen looks and acts like yet another corporate machine, a cynical (it looks like Samsung’s plan B if it if wants to take a step back from Android) and not very interesting one at that. Campaigns to attract developers are one thing, but we’re going to need to see a phone with Tizen installed on it soon if we’re to get at least a little excited about it.

Except when the first Tizen phone does arrive, it’ll probably be powered by one of Samsung’s Exynos processors, which are based on ARM architecture. Why the slap in the face? Well, the aforementioned lack of 4G doesn’t help, and as Samsung has only tested an Intel chip inside one of its tablets, it makes sense to use its own chips instead of pleasing its partner. After all, it presumably wants Tizen to get the best possible start in life, and at the moment an Intel chip probably wouldn’t be the one to offer it.

Intel plans to be inside again

So, Intel has its fingers in some meaty pies, but are they hot and appetizing enough to not only turn our, as consumers, heads and worry ARM? In an interview with the Financial Times, ARM’s new CEO Simon Segars was unfazed by Intel’s advances and said the company expected it to grab some of the mobile market, while UBS has upgraded ARM’s stocks and expects its earnings to increase by 28 percent per share each year until 2017. Intel rival AMD has confirmed its going to use ARM for its first mobile chips, destined for Android tablets, plus, outside the mobile space its first 64-bit Seattle server chips will be based on ARM’s Cortex A57 cores.

If ARM’s domination is being affected by Intel, it’s not showing yet, and all the while Apple, Samsung, Sony, and HTC  prefer ARM-based chips from Qualcomm and Nvidia, it’s probably not going to change much in the next few years. This, combined with its slow mobile processor growth and the Tizen project of which few seem to care, means wearables is probably looking very attractive indeed.

As we’ve not seen the mainstream release of a breakthrough wearable product yet, you can bet Intel wants – or needs – a tiny Atom chip inside when it does arrive. The birth of a new mobile industry segment also means Intel has the chance to avoid its current problems, which it can do by quickly cuddling up to manufacturers, who will probably be equally keen not to miss the wearable tech boat either. Will it be enough to convince them to use an Intel chip inside their next phone? Intel looks to be banking on it.

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