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Why Intel's Atom may bomb

Posted: 09 Jun 2008     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:semiconductor  mobile products  Computex 

There is no place like Taipei for mobile mania, so it is no surprise Intel's Atom and its rivals from Nvidia, Via and others are gathering there at Computex 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 hungry for growth. Desktops have peaked, 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 whole new categories of products its marketing managers dream up in their spare time. These days, Intel is generating names faster than they can come up with rational definitions for them: net-tops, net-books, ultramobile PCs, mobile Internet devices.

What's next? Nanotops? Subtopbooks?

Taipei has always been high on such visions from the smoke-and-mirrors department in Santa Clara. When I first traveled to the island nation for Computex around 1990, it was the year of the Palmtop PC, little clamshell devices with Chicklet keyboards, black-and-white LCDs and dumbed-down versions of Windows (a term potentially redundant as military intelligence).

We were so excited about Palmtop PCs. Every self-respecting ODM in Taiwan had a prototype palmtop at their booth that year. Every Computex attendee in 1990 wanted to be the first to buy one. 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—or I should say as hungry—for a new system concept that promises something better than a single-digit profit.

Ah, but that is not the mobile Internet device. Nor is it the net-top, net-book or nex-gen mobo-mumbo-jumbo. These are systems, quoth Intel, that will bring the next billion users to the Internet because they will be cheap. Certainly less than Rs.12,006.32 ($300), probably less than Rs.8,004.21 ($200).

After all, the only expensive item in the nano-mobo box is the Intel processor. Everything else can be a commodity, right? Such is the vision of mobile computing from Santa Clara.

Now 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 just as expensive. Via has a Nano CPU that was awarded a Best of Computex prize as the CPU from the Taiwanese homeland. Even normally sober Broadcom came to Taipei talking nonsense about media codecs for MIDs and UMPCs.

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 no 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 favourite wireless analysts, raves over his Asus eePC. Mathias says he can't wait to get his (admittedly tiny) fingers on an MSI Wind because it is small and inexpensive like the eePC, but it has a bigger hard drive (80Gb) and display (10in). Now there's a back-to-the-future moment for you.

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.

The future of the mobile market lies in the smart phone. Apple has shown with the iPhone how to create a useful and just-about 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. And as usual, Andy was right.

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

A simple cellular base band with an extra ARM core or two will probably do quite nicely for these systems. Nothing fancy. Last-generation hardware is just fine.

But these mobile systems of the future will need a lot of really creative software to make use of new input technologies like multi-touch 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. And even 18-plus months after this future was shown to all the world, Intel and Taiwan Inc. 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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