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Intel needs to build, brand its own iPad, iPhone

Chipmaker needs to build its own equivalent of the popular Apple products instead of waiting on its partners.

Intel is wasting precious time waiting for its "partners" to build the equivalent of an iPad and iPhone.

The Atom chip-basd LG smartphone prototype. This tablet-esque smartphone was first mentioned way back in February of 2009
The Atom chip-basd LG smartphone prototype. This tablet-esque smartphone was first mentioned way back in February of 2009 Brooke Crothers

In the wake of Intel's hiring of a former Palm and Apple executive Mike Bell, Intel should short-circuit the ugly process of watching customers like Hewlett-Packard and Acer prattle about Intel-based tablets, then do nothing. (And a Nokia MeeGo tablet, for example, doesn't count either: that's a Nokia brand.)

Friday's announcement stated that Bell "in his new role...will lead a team with the charter to build breakthrough smartphone reference designs with the explicit intent of accelerating Intel architecture into the market." A reference design--essentially a product blueprint for customers--will do little for seeding Intel-based designs in the brave new markets for smartphones and tablets.

In these markets, Intel does not carry the clout (potential for big revenue streams) as it does in PCs. (Remember the MID?) United Kingdom-based ARM does, however. Though a tiny chip company by comparison, it is surrounded by a satellite of big, muscular chip manufacturers (not unlike Intel) such as Samsung, Texas Instruments, and Qualcomm, who have big customers--Apple, Motorola, and RIM, to name a few. In tablets and smartphones, Intel is just another chipmaker--and not seen as competitive, to boot.

By making it a priority, Intel could muster a lot of design and manufacturing expertise for an Intel-branded tablet. There is already latent end-product design talent there. One of the first eye-catching ultrathin laptop designs came from Intel--before the MacBook Air and Dell Adamo. Though Intel could not (cannot) build its own laptop because of obvious conflicts with its customers, that's simply not a significant issue with tablets: first-tier customers in this market will opt in many, if not most, cases for an ARM-based product.

Indeed, there is no guarantee that HP, Dell, or Acer will put their heart into designing a great Intel-based tablet. Or, later this year, when Intel has more competitive smartphone chips, that LG or another company will come out with a decent smartphone. (Though an Intel smartphone would be a much trickier proposition: witness the marketing problems Google had with its Nexus One.) The point is that it may become an imperative if smartphone makers don't bring out slick Intel-based phones.

Intel should break the mold and go whole hog with its own design and end product--at least for a tablet. And the operating system of choice already exists: Android.

Though Intel executives are ostensibly correct when they say (most recently in the earnings conference call Tuesday) that tablets are simply "additive" to the market and overall not that significant yet, the question is, will Intel keep saying this while slowly consigning itself to insignificance in some of the most interesting newfangled device markets?

Updated on July 19 at 11:15 a.m. PDT: adding Nokia discussion.