Intel Infineon: history repeats itself

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…

Sharing Wi-Fi 1 – My Wi-Fi

I have written before about Intel’s Cliffside project. This went public at CES in January under the name My Wi-Fi. The idea is to make your one laptop Wi-Fi adapter into two virtual adapters. One of these adapters is a regular laptop Wi-Fi adapter like before. The second turns your laptop into a kind of mini access point. Consumer electronics like Apple TVs and Wi-Fi printers can then stream media directly to and from the laptop, rather than relaying it through a real access point:

Realize first that, from an overall network topology standpoint, a single video stream coursing from source to destination is actually two streams; one going from the source to the router and through its integrated switch, and another heading out from the router to the destination. [Brian Dipert]

My Wi-Fi also allows Wi-Fi to substitute for Bluetooth for laptop wireless peripherals, like mice and keyboards, and this CNET article points out that it can also be used to share paid Wi-Fi connections in hotels and hot-spots.

Wi-Fi Bluetooth collision

I already wrote about how Bluetooth is specifying Wi-Fi for its high bandwidth transport in a future version. Now there’s another interesting Bluetooth/Wi-Fi juxtaposition.

You may remember that last year Bluetooth subsumed WiBree as an ultra low power consumption variant. Now something analogous is happening in Wi-Fi, where a startup called Ozmo has come up with an ultra low power variation of Wi-Fi, which it is pitching as a substitute for Bluetooth.

Ozmo is not the first to propose this. Nanoradio claims that its implementation of Wi-Fi consumes way less power than Bluetooth, and they have a reference design for a Wi-Fi headset to demo the concept. Atheros has also recently announced a low-power Wi-Fi chip – so low that they claim “near zero” stand-by power consumption.

So Ozmo may not be so radical in its low-power claims, but it also claims low-cost. The Ozmo chip is priced the same as Bluetooth chips, which Ozmo estimates are between 1/4 and 1/3 the cost of Wi-Fi chips.

The Atheros and Nanoradio chips are full implementations of Wi-Fi; Ozmo’s is, according to this EETimes article, a “stripped down” version. This may mean that it is a non-standard version, in which case it would need a new certification program from the Wi-Fi Alliance – not a major obstacle, I presume, in view of Intel’s strong support for Ozmo.

So why would anybody want a version of Wi-Fi to substitute for Bluetooth, when we already have Bluetooth? Well, while most phones come with Bluetooth these days, in the PC world Wi-Fi is far more common than Bluetooth. So for peripherals designed exclusively for PCs, like mice and keyboards, Wi-Fi makes more sense than Bluetooth simply on the grounds of out-of-the-box compatibility. Add the technical benefits, like coexistence (Bluetooth and Wi-Fi tend to step on each others’ toes) and superior performance (Ozmo claims double the battery life in similar applications to Bluetooth), and it seems like a no-brainer.

The factors that could cause it to fail are ease of use and price. The setup of the peripherals with the PC must be completely automatic, and the operation of the devices must be flawless. Peripheral manufacturers must produce Wi-Fi versions of all their wireless products, and price them the same as their Bluetooth versions. The Wi-Fi drivers on the PC side will have to be modified in order to permit the PC Wi-Fi to communicate simultaneously with access points and peripherals. This is being done anyway by Intel, in a project called “Cliffside.”

All these impediments are mitigated considerably by Intel’s involvement. Intel makes most of the Wi-Fi chips in PCs, and presumably these chips will support the Ozmo products. With this assurance, peripheral manufacturers will feel comfortable going ahead with Ozmo-powered products.

Intel returns to the smartphone business in late 2009

The Intel Atom is aimed at Internet tablets, Mobile Internet Devices and Ultra-mobile PCs (or whatever the nom de jour is), but not at phones. I don’t think Intel has formally announced its return to the phone processor business yet, but Paul Otellini has been talking about it for a while now, so it seems overdue to make it official. That’s what the Financial Times did today with the headline “Intel to re-enter mobile market.” Otellini said the same thing to the New York Times on Sunday as well. Of course it has been expected ever since the first Atom announcement, and it may not really qualify as news, but here it is: “A second generation version of the chip, expected in late 2009, will be aimed at smart phones.”

As you know, the Atom is Intel’s prospective ARM-killer, but Intel will have some very heavy sledding to do to achieve this goal. The first obstacle is size and complexity. The Intel Architecture instruction set is much more complicated than the ARM, with decades of legacy dross gunking it up. The core proposition of IA for handsets is that IA is compatible with all the PC software and websites out there, so none of the legacy stuff can be left out. Intel has two factors working in its favor for this issue: first, a lot of the little-used functionality of IA can be implemented in microcode, which takes minimal die space. Second, Intel leads the world in process technology, and as it moves to the 32 nm and below nodes, vast numbers of transistors can be fitted into tiny chips. This shrinkage, and advances in power management technology, may enable the next generation of Atom to get into the same ballpark as ARM for battery life.

The second obstacle is incumbency. There are vastly more ARM processors out running in the world than there are Intel Architecture processors. The ARM is the processor used by effectively all phones and smart phones, and there are even more ARMs in other embedded applications. While Intel can point to a huge independent software developer community for IA, with a rich array of third party developer support, so can ARM for its architecture. And it’s not clear that the Atom will have a significant performance advantage over the ARM. ARM is not standing still on its architecture, delivering faster, lower power chips in step with Moore’s law just like Intel.

The incumbency issue also has a political aspect. Handset manufacturers are disinclined to hand Intel the kind of architectural franchise that it has in the PC world, so the Atom will have to have a compelling, essential advantage over the ARM in order to displace it in any but niche applications. Intel hopes that “the real Internet” is that advantage, but the iPhone has demonstrated that the real Internet can run very nicely on an ARM-based phone. In any case, within three years more smart phones will be shipping than PCs, and the other handset manufacturers will probably have caught up with Apple on the browser front, so it is possible that more Internet browsing will be being done with ARMs than IA chips.

The third obstacle is business model. To satisfy the stock market, Intel requires aggregate gross margins around 60%. This will be very tough to achieve in the mass-market for handset processors, because the margins on competing ARMs are much lower.

Good background on the Atom can be found in this EETimes article, this Beyond3d article, and this one by my colleague Linley Gwenapp.