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Intel's Atom climbs higher ground

Posted: 09 Jun 2008 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:mobile? PCs? Atom? x86?

There is no place like Taipei for mobile mania, the city where mopeds are the vehicles of choice. So, it is no surprise Intel's Atom and its rivals from Nvidia, Via and others gathered at Computex Taipei last week to pop a few wheelies about new kinds of mobile product concepts.

These days, Intel loves to egg on this mobile mania with its 2W+ Atom. But make no mistake about its agenda.

The world's biggest and most narrowly focused semiconductor maker is craving for growth. Desktops have peaked and servers are humming along at a moderate pace and only notebooks are really growing at a lively pace.

So the x86 giant wants to generate a little excitement about new categories of products its marketing managers dream of in their spare time. These days, Intel is generating names faster than they can come up with rational definitions such as net-tops, net-books, ultramobile PCs, mobile Internet devices.

Next innovations
Taipei has always been high on such visions from the smoke-and-mirrors department in Santa Clara. When I first traveled to Computex in 1990, it was the season of the Palmtop PC, little clamshell devices with Chicklet keyboards, black-and-white LCDs and dumbed-down versions of Windows.

We were so excited about Palmtop PCs. Every self-respecting ODM in Taiwan had a prototype palmtop at their booth that year. Every Computex participant during that time wanted to be the first have it. Within a year, the whole category was dead.

At best, the devices slipped into your pocket with all the grace of a grapefruit. They were nearly as useful.

Scroll ahead nearly 20 years and see what little we have learned. The Taiwan industry is still as gullible for a new system concept that promises something better than a single-digit profit.

But that is not the mobile Internet device. Nor is it the net-top, net-book or next-generation mobo-mumbo-jumbo. "These are systems that will bring the billion users to the Internet because they will be cheap," said Intel. Certainly, it is less than $300 or probably less than $200.

The only expensive item is the Intel processor. Everything else can be a commodity. Such is the vision of mobile computing from Santa Clara.

At present, everyone is drinking the Kool-Aid. Seeing its future in this zero-billion-dollar market, Nvidia has rolled out its Tegra, a smaller, lower-power alternative to Atom that is just as potent and as expensive. Via has a Nano CPU that was awarded a Best of Computex prize as the CPU from the Taiwan homeland. Even normally sober Broadcom Corp. came to Taipei talking nonsense about media codecs for mobile Internet devices and ultra mobile PCs.

The problem with many of these devices is not that they have not had a powerful enough CPU or video decoder. The problem is there are not good display and input technologies that can be easily tucked into a pocket then rolled out to let human eyes and fingers do real work or have fun.

Engineers sometimes forget they have no power to redesign pockets, fingers or eyes. But sometimes when they are swept up in gadget lust they can forget these truths.

I'll make one exception. It's possible some net-tops and net-books may actually be new versions of entry-level desktop and notebook PCs.

Craig Mathias, one of my favorite wireless analysts, raves over his Asus eePC. Mathias said he can't wait to get his fingers on an MSI Wind because it is small and inexpensive like the eePC, but it has a bigger 80Gbyte hard drive and 10-inch display.

Such systems are not new product concepts, but stepwise extensions of old ones. They will not open up new markets but create new niches in existing ones.

Heading for the future
The future of the mobile market lies in the smart phone. Apple has shown with the iPhone how to create a useful and pocketable device for Web access and telephony.

The first time I saw Andy Bechtolsheim carrying one at a conference he was so excited about it he nearly jumped out of his signature Silicon Valley sandals. "Finally, someone has found a way to put the Internet experience in your pocket," he told me.

The iPhone doesn't need an x86 chip, much as that must frustrate Paul Otellini. According to the latest trends, my colleagues at Portelligent Inc. have seen in their teardowns that it may not even need an applications processor in the near future.

A simple cellular baseband with an extra ARM core or two will probably do quite nicely for these systems. Last-generation hardware is just fine.

But these mobile systems of the future will need a number of creative software to make use of new input technologies like multitouch displays software. That's something Intel and Taiwan generally put at the end of the product-creation cycle as icing on the hardware cake.

That's why the mobile future is coming not from Santa Clara but from Cupertino. Even more than 18 months after this future was shown to the world, Intel and Taiwan have still not quite figured out how to replicate any piece of it except the mobile mania.

- Rick Merritt
EE Times

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