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Intel going mobile with Android?

When Google's Android mobile software arrives next year, it's quite possible phone companies won't be the only hardware makers taking a close look at the platform.

Phone makers aren't the only ones interested in Google's Android software.

Of the 34 companies that agreed to join Google's Open Handset Alliance, Intel's decision to participate is yet another sign that the chipmaker is looking for alternative software to run on its Mobile Internet Device (MID) project. Most of the attention around Android focused on the mobile-phone market, and with good reason, as that area will be the first to get a sense of whether Google and its partners can actually make headway in this area.

Intel might be interested in Google's Android software for MIDs, like this concept device shown at September's IDF. Tom Krazit/CNET Networks

But the world's largest chipmaker would still like to be the world's largest chipmaker in 5 or 10 years, when the personal-computing market might look very different. Intel has scrapped its own plans to enter the smartphone market, and so it's approaching the future of mobile computing from the other side, trying to shrink PC technology into compelling devices.

To date, this hasn't really worked. Smartphone sales are growing every day, while the Origami/Ultra Mobile PC initiative hasn't caught on at all, and Intel's now reorganizing its mobile plans around the MID with plans to ship Linux-based devices alongside Windows ones. But hardware-wise, the Menlow generation of MIDs looks very similar to the older UMPCs, and I wouldn't expect the 2008 MIDs to sell dramatically better than the ones currently on the market.

But in a few years, this project might turn into something more interesting, perhaps around the time Intel releases a chip called Moorestown by 2010. The company has said very little about Moorestown, but CEO Paul Otellini has set audacious power-consumption goals for the project and the company has worked up a few concept models that look more like smartphones than mobile minitablets.

"End users desire the ability to take the full Internet with them, the experience they have on their PC, in a nomadic or mobile fashion," said Gary Willihnganz, director of marketing in Intel's mobile group. That's language straight from the playbooks of Apple's Steve Jobs and Google's Eric Schmidt, both of whom this year have emphasized their commitment to delivering a PC-like Internet experience on a handheld device.

Android comes into play here because Intel and its hardware partners will need software to run the Moorestown-class devices. At the Intel Developer Forum in September, company executives spent a fair amount of time emphasizing non-Microsoft software as part of the MID project. To be fair, they did include the obligatory PowerPoint slide with the usual language about how Microsoft is a very important partner for Intel. Very, very important.

But ladies and gentlemen, now joining us onstage in a special appearance, the developer of Ubuntu Linux, Canonical CEO Mark Shuttleworth! Ubuntu received several minutes of valuable airtime during Intel mobile chief Anand Chandrasekher's keynote speech, while Microsoft, the biggest software company in the world and Intel's closest partner for decades, was reduced to a single slide.

After it was apparent that the Windows XP-class UMPCs weren't going to succeed, and after Windows Vista appeared to actually take a step back in terms of power consumption, Intel started moving away from its longtime partner. In Beijing in April, Chandrasekher admitted that Intel has been urging Microsoft to develop a more power-friendly version of Windows.

Vista was designed for PCs. It requires relatively powerful processors and significant amounts of memory, and those requirements don't make it easy to develop a small, sleek, handheld battery-powered device that needs to last all day and cost less than $500.

Linux, however, is more modular than some of the other options out there. You don't need to support 20 years worth of legacy code when assembling a Linux mobile phone, or make hard choices about what to exclude from a computer operating system, like Apple did with OS X on the iPhone. You just pick and choose components from various open-source projects to put together everything you need to run a phone, or maybe a minitablet computer.

Sounds easy, but the promise of mobile Linux has gone exactly nowhere over the past few years: "It's still in science-fair project mode," says my colleague Stephen Shankland. Collectively, Linux is the second most widely used smartphone operating system, behind Symbian and ahead of Microsoft's Windows Mobile. But dozens of companies combine to produce that market share, and there's no guarantee that an application written for one flavor of Linux will run on a different implementation.

It would be very hard for a company like Intel to place a bet on any one particular distribution. The company is clearly hoping that Google unifies the Linux market to give Intel a safer option for MIDs.

Of course, it's far from certain what might eventually evolve out of the 34 companies in the Open Handset Alliance by next year. Intel isn't quite sure itself. "We don't have a good feel for what it's all about, or what its capabilities are, much less any idea of how consumers are going to be able to value (Android software)," Willihnganz said. And Microsoft appears to have gotten the message, with a project under way to develop a stripped down Windows kernel.

It's hard to know exactly what to think of Android right now, since we have no idea what it looks like. But don't think of Android as just software for smartphones; if Google pulls this off, it could have much broader implications for other parts of the tech industry.