Meet the Intel man who's out to beat ARM in smartphones

Mike Bell runs Intel's mobile group and he's convinced that Intel's Atom chips are better for Android than ARM's ubiquitous processors.

Former Palm and Apple exec Mike Bell leads Intel's smartphone push Intel

It's not often you meet someone in the tech industry for whom the only way is up, but Intel's Michael A. Bell is one of those people. His job is to break Intel into the smartphone market -- and whatever he does, he can't end up reducing its market share.

Previously a vice president on the Mac side at Apple and then in charge of product development at Palm (the Pre and the Pixi were his handsets), Bell is now vice president and general manager of Intel's Mobile and Communications Group. His job is to take Intel from nowhere to a major player in the smartphone market. I caught up with him on a recent trip he made to the U.K. to promote the first Intel phone to launch in the West, in a deal the company has struck with local carrier Orange.

Allen's plan is to repeat the model that Intel has used successfully in other areas: produce a reference design -- Bell calls it an "iconic design" -- for each generation of chip and use that to persuade companies to buy from Intel. The company does all of the time-consuming certification chores for the manufacturer, so in theory it's a very easy way of getting a phone on store shelves quickly.

In this case, Orange liked the reference design so much that it simply put in an order for a bunch of phones, asked for some operator apps and a skin to be pre-installed, and put them in the shops as the Orange San Diego. The final product is Intel's design, but Orange could have taken the reference phone and adapted it further if it wanted to. Check out CNET UK's Orange San Diego review if you want to know what we thought of it.

My big question to Bell was why? Why should the user care about Intel entering the smartphone race, what's in it for them? Fewer crashes, reckons Bell. The chip inside Intel's smartphone is an x86 Atom chip rather than the ARM architecture you find on most other phones, and that means the company has had to make a bunch of low-level software tweaks to make the chip work properly with Android.

Bell says that this work leads to a smoother user experience and that apps will crash less often. He also extolled the virtues of the 1.6GHz processor inside the phone -- it can play back 1080p video, has an HDMI port, Wi-Fi display features and can cope with the camera taking 10 full-resolution pictures per second.

The Orange San Diego is based entirely on Intel's reference design Orange

But surely other phones can do that? Yes, says Bell, but not using a single core like the Intel chip: "We don't need to turn on a second core -- we get so much performance out of one core," he boasts. Bell also says the dual-core chips in rival phones are detrimental to the product, as the way in which Google has implemented support for dual core in Android isn't the best.

The one big problem with Intel's solution is that it means the phone is running the old Gingerbread version of Android rather than Ice Cream Sandwich, aka Android 4.0. Bell says that a huge amount changed between the two versions, including a bunch of low-level changes, and they need more time to work on Ice Cream Sandwich to make sure it's stable. He also blames the fact there are some different ways the two versions behave -- with Gingerbread, for example, Intel had to choose between using internal memory and an SD card, but with Ice Cream Sandwich, you can have both.

As for putting Intel chips inside other types of phones, Bell says he's not against the idea, but at the moment his customers are overwhelmingly asking for Android, and Nokia and Microsoft are focusing on making one type of chip work with Windows Phone, at least for now.

It's hard to know whether Bell will be successful in the long run. I suspect this will be his biggest problem: when I asked him what proportion of consumers know or care about the chip in their phone, he reasonably answered "not a lot".

His preferred method to rectifying that is to make great products that people love, but isn't that what everyone is aiming for? Without blanket marketing of its mobile processors the way the company has done with PC chips, it's hard for me to see how Intel will persuade customers to opt for Intel Inside their next phone.

 

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