LAS VEGAS—Intel played a pivotal role in making PCs ubiquitous by developing a standard architecture on which Microsoft Windows, Web browsers and other popular software could operate. Company CEO Paul Otellini announced Tuesday during his keynote at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) here Intel's intention to work similar magic in smart phones, many of which employ processors made by ARM Holdings. (Apple's earliest iPhones used ARM processors but, starting with the iPhone 4, now use chips made by Samsung.)
By midyear Intel's Atom processor will make its first foray into smart phones as the engine for the new Lenovo K800. Lenovo is best known for buying IBM's PC division in December 2004. The K800 will initially be sold in China, which already has about 100 million smart-phone users, making it the world's largest smart-phone market, Otellini said. The Intel CEO also announced onstage that his company and Motorola Mobility, recently bought by Google, have entered into a multiyear agreement to make smart phones, the first of which will appear during the second half of this year.
Intel's formula for success will by necessity need to vary from its triumph in the PC market of the 1980s and 1990s. For starters, dozen of successful smart phones—including the Samsung Galaxy, LG Optimus and HTC Evo—already ship with ARM microprocessors. In addition, Intel built a lot of its success by teaming with Microsoft to develop the so-called "Wintel" platform that dominated the PC market. Microsoft Windows will be only one of several operating systems that Intel's chips will support. (Lenovo's K800 runs Google's Android operating system, for example.)
A key aspect of Intel's plan to power smart phones is to offer a standard package of chips and software that phone makers can use when building their devices. In addition to the Atom processor, this package includes security scanning, data backup, data restoration and other software applications Intel now offers thanks to its acquisition of security software maker McAfee in February 2011. Intel claims that this standard "smart-phone reference architecture" will help phone makers build handsets that have longer battery life and greater performance.
Tablets and ultrabooks will continue to be a major push for Intel as well. More than a dozen ultrabook models are already shipping and an additional 60 will hit the market by the end of the year, Otellini said. "Ultrabook" is actually an Intel trademark although it's being used to describe a class of thin, lightweight portable computers.
Dell unveiled its latest ultrabook, the XPS 13, during Otellini's keynote. The XPS 13, which features a lightweight aluminum shell, is six millimeters at its thinnest point, weighs less than 1.4 kilograms and features Corning's damage-resistant Gorilla Glass to prevent its screen from breaking. Dell will begin taking orders for the XPS 13 in February.
Given the success of Apple's iPad tablet as well as the Samsung Galaxy, Amazon's Kindle Fire and others, some question whether the PC—ultrabook or otherwise—is a dying breed. Otellini prefers to think that tablets and ultrabooks can coexist, meeting different needs of different users. One means of coexistence that he demonstrated Tuesday is a prototype hybrid device that features both a keyboard and touch screen. The computer opens like a conventional laptop clamshell, but the screen can be shifted to lay flat over the keyboard so that the device can function like a tablet. Otellini didn't say when or whether the ultrabook-tablet hybrid would be available to the public.
This concept isn't an entirely new, however. When Microsoft and a handful of PC makers introduced the original tablet PCs a decade ago, many featured both keyboards and touch screens. The difference this time around is that, thanks to improvements in high-speed wireless broadband and the emergence of multimedia content, tablets are successfully being targeted at consumers rather than businesses.
Image courtesy of Larry Greenemeier