Intel smartphone push questioned

The chip giant's lack of execution with smartphone chips to date has analysts wondering whether the company has the right stuff for a renewed effort in that area.

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
Brooke Crothers
2 min read

SANTA CLARA, Calif.--Intel's push into the smartphone market is facing growing skepticism from some analysts who attended the company's investor meeting yesterday. The chipmaker, meanwhile, tried to dispel doubts by disclosing for the first time that its "Medfield" smartphone chip will get a major update.

Intel CEO Paul Otellini talks with analysts at the Intel Investor Meeting on Tuesday.
Intel CEO Paul Otellini talks with analysts at the Intel Investor Meeting on Tuesday. Brooke Crothers

Financial analysts had lots of questions for Intel yesterday about how it will offer a distinct advantage over smartphone processors from rival chipmakers such as Texas Instruments, Nvidia, and Qualcomm, which make silicon based on the dominant ARM architecture.

In post-presentation Q&A sessions and informal meetings with executives, the essence of the questions was the same: how will Intel's processors stand out?

Behind the doubts is a history of lousy execution. Intel has been promising smartphones with its chips since 2009, when an LG smartphone failed to materialize. More than two years later, no smartphones exist yet with Intel chips.

While optimistic about Intel's upcoming "Medfield" processor for smartphones, Mike Feibus, principal analyst at TechKnowledge Strategies, said there is concern. "It's a little disappointing...because I thought they would be farther along than they are now," he said.

"Part of it may be that Intel has swung too far to the other side of the pendulum. In 2010, the company overpromised and took it on the chin. Now they may be a little overcautious as a result," he said.

And that, indeed, seems to the case. Intel executives speaking informally after the regular session said this time they intend to underpromise and overdeliver.

Intel's Medfield is due in smartphones in the "first part" of next year, CEO Paul Otellini said yesterday. Industry sources familiar with Intel's plans said that at least one of the smartphone customers is "a very large OEM [original equipment manufacturer]."

And Intel disclosed yesterday for the first time that Medfield will get an update, which caught more than a few analysts by surprise. In other words, Intel will debut Medfield in a smartphone early next year, as expected, but then do a significant update of the chip--which had not been expected. Medfield is based on Intel's current 32-nanometer technology.

"Medfield doesn't stay static. Inside the 32-nanometer window we have a significant refresh. Much better feature set that I don't want to talk about today but it improves the platform. Followed by 22 nanometer," said Otellini responding to an analyst's question.