Intel gets back into smartphone game

Caroline Gabriel
Wireless Asia

LG is emerging as the unlikely friend of the old Wintel model. First it committed to a score of Windows Mobile phones last year, at a time when the Microsoft OS was losing ground, and now it is propelling Intel back into the smartphone chip market, for the first time since the US firm sold its XScale ARM-based business to Marvell in mid-2006.

At this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Intel demonstrated an LG smartphone using the latest member of its Atom family, which it says achieves the low levels of power consumption needed to go up against ARM-based processors in the phone market. The silicon giant also stayed in the fashion by unveiling its own app store, mainly geared to software for netbooks, the segment where Atom has really succeeded to date.

Of course, Intel will find the entrenched smartphone leader, Qualcomm, a tough act to beat, especially as the San Diego firm is moving into Atom's heartland with its Snapdragon processor. And other PC chipmakers hope to go mobile, with AMD saying it will have a smartphone processor next year, and Nvidia launching the second generation of its Tegra mobile apps processor.

The Intel demonstration phone, the LG GW990, runs the lower power version of Atom, called Moorestown. It comes with the Korean vendor's S-Class 3D user interface and supports HD video. It will go on sale in the second half of this year and Intel CEO Paul Otellini said it proved Intel was now competitive in handsets. "And it's going to get better, over time we should have the best silicon in terms of performance and power characteristics," he told the London Financial Times.

Other major themes of his keynote at CES included a demonstration of 3D television to a smart meter concept for centralized home control. He also showed off an Atom-based smartphone reference design from Aava Mobile and a tablet reference design from OpenPeak. Many of the Intel demos used the Clearwire Wimax network, increasing speculation that LG will soon launch a Wimax handset for Sprint/Clearwire.

The Intel store combines free and paid-for software divided by categories such as business, education, entertainment, games, health and social networking. Otellini said some familiar partners, such as Dell, Asus and Samsung, have already agreed to support the store on netbooks or low end PCs. While the smartphone app store market is highly fragmented, the PC version has not really matured, so Intel stands a good chance of creating a common framework that various partners can use and brand (a role some mobile players, from Symbian to Qualcomm and Alcatel-Lucent, are chasing on the handset).

The Intel store, currently in beta release, will host apps for Windows and the Linux-based Moblin, which is optimized for Atom. It will be integrated with the new Atom Developer Program. Intel says that within 30 days of offering this program, more than 2,500 developers downloaded the starter kit, and more than 350 apps have since been submitted for validation or review.

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