Unlike its perplexing McAfee move, Intel had to acquire Infineon. Intel must make the Atom succeed. The smartphone market is growing fast, and the media tablet market is in the starting blocks. Chips in these devices are increasingly systems-on-chip, combining multiple functions. To sell application processors in phones, you must have a baseband story. Infineon’s RF expertise is a further benefit.
As Linley Gwennap said when he predicted the acquisition a month ago, the fit is natural. Intel needs 3G and LTE basebands, Infineon has no application processor.
Linley also pointed out Intel’s abysmal track record for acquisitions.
Intel has been through this movie before, for the same strategic reasons. It acquired DSP Communications in 1999 for $1.6 Bn. The idea there was to enter the cellphone chip market with DSP’s baseband plus the XScale ARM processor that Intel got from DEC. It was great in theory, and XScale got solid design wins in the early smart-phones, but Intel neglected XScale, letting its performance lead over other ARM implementations dwindle, and its only significant baseband customer was RIM.
In 2005, Paul Otellini became CEO; at that time AMD was beginning to make worrying inroads into Intel’s market share. Otellini regrouped – he focused in on Intel’s core business, which he saw as being “Intel Architecture” chips. But XScale runs an instruction set architecture that competes with IA, namely ARM. So rather than continuing to invest in its competition, Intel instead dumped off its flagging cellphone chip business (baseband and XScale) to Marvell for $0.6 Bn, and set out to create an IA chip that could compete with ARM in size, power consumption and price. Hence Atom.
But does instruction set architecture matter that much any more? Intel’s pitch on Atom-based netbooks was that you could have “the whole Internet” on them, including the parts that run only on IA chips. But now there are no such parts. Everything relevant on the Internet works fine on ARM-based systems like Android phones. iPhones are doing great even without Adobe Flash.
So from Intel’s point of view, this decade-later redo of its entry into the cellphone chip business is different. It is doing it right, with a coherent corporate strategy. But from the point of view of the customers (the phone OEMs and carriers) it may not look so different. They will judge Intel’s offerings on price, performance, power efficiency, wireless quality and how easy Intel makes it to design-in the new chips. The same criteria as last time.
Rethink Wireless has some interesting insights on this topic…