Intel is taking another step forward in its march toward mobile relevancy.
Lenovo plans to announce two new Intel-powered smartphones in the first two months of next year, according to a person familiar with the devices. Intel will provide both its 64-bit Atom processor and LTE-Advanced modem chips for the Lenovo phones, with one targeting China coming by early February and the other focused on emerging countries, coming in early January. The information comes just weeks before the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas early next month, when Intel, Lenovo and other major tech firms are expected to make a series of product announcements.
The design wins, the person said, mark Intel's first 4G smartphone in China -- by far the biggest smartphone market by current users in the world -- and represent an important milestone for Intel as the country rapidly moves into high-speed 4G technology. The deal follows two previous Intel-powered smartphones released by Chinese vendor Lenovo.
The 4G phones follow Intel's announcement in October of its, the Asus PadFone X Mini. Though such product announcements are helpful advances for the Santa Clara, Calif.-based chipmaker, Intel remains well behind Qualcomm -- which controls two-thirds of the global mobile modem market -- and MediaTek as a supplier of chips for smartphones and tablets.
In a recent interview, Aicha Evans, an Intel vice president focused on wireless technologies, said Intel intends to be a "credible player" in China and around the world in mobile, saying the company is well positioned to grow in the space. "We're determined," she said. "This is going to be a marathon with a lot of sprints in between."
Intel faces tough competition trying to fight its way into mobile -- a market it ignored for years as it instead focused on its core business of supplying chips for personal computers and data centers. But, as mobile's growth has exploded and more customers have transitioned from PCs to tablets, Intel has shifted to pushing hard into mobile in hopes of keeping up its growth. So far, the company has lost billions of dollars trying to expand in the space, and it expects to keep losing money in its mobile business through 2015. Yet Intel executives continue to, even as other chipmakers -- such as Broadcom and Nvidia -- have moved away from supplying smartphone modem and processor chips.
Intel early next year will introduce its first 4G system-on-a-chip under the new SoFIA name. Such chips include both a processor and modem together and are sought after by handset makers because they're smaller in size than separate processor and radio chips, and use less power. That chip could help Intel come closer to matching Qualcomm's Snapdragon system-on-a-chip franchise, but that depends on whether manufacturers embrace SoFIA.
"It's really too early to tell" if Intel can succeed in China and elsewhere, said Christopher Rolland, a chips analyst for FBR Capital Markets. "We don't know how good that 4G product is going to be."
Rolland said Intel is still "a long way off" in mobile but could gain a foothold in China with strong design wins and partnerships.
Intel is late to come to market in China, said Ian Ing, an analyst for MKM Partners, but thanks to the expansion in 4G there, "they've got a good opportunity to participate in some of the strong growth years."