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Will Google Ever Use Intel's Chips?

May 12, 2014 | About:
FinanceGuru

FinanceGuru

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While I spend the majority of my time as a financial writer and an investor, one of my favorite hobbies is software development. One of the hottest skillsets for a programmer to have today is the ability to develop applications for Google's (GOOG) Android platform. After all, with over 1 billion device activations and with hardware that seems to be in the process of becoming exponentially more powerful, this is an extremely attractive platform for developers and in time, one I believe will eventually far exceed Apple's (AAPL) highly popular (and lucrative) iOS platform.

Where are all of the Intel-powered Android devices?

Intel's (INTC) mobile strategy consists of the following:

  • Android on phones
  • Android and Windows for tablets

While Intel talks a lot about how, particularly on tablets, that both Android and Windows are "equal partners", the harsh reality is that as of the time of writing (12/28/2013), there are very few Android devices shipping with Intel silicon. Sure, you can find a few examples like the Lenovo K900 phone (which has been superseded by a Qualcomm (QCOM) powered model) or the Dell Venue 7/8 tablets, but by-and-large, Intel-powered Android devices are exceptionally rare today.

What's even more troubling is that the few Android devices that are for sale with Intel silicon inside typically suffer from the following issues:

  • They aren't running the latest version of Android (there are no Intel based devices running Android 4.4 "KitKat")
  • These aren't running the latest Intel "Bay Trail" chips - they're all running the older generation "Clover Trail+" chips (that, frankly, aren't very good)

So, what can Intel do in order to fix these issues?

Intel Needs To Support The Latest Android Releases From The Get-Go

The very first thing that Intel needs to do is to make sure that the latest-and-greatest versions of Android are up, running, and shipping for all reasonably modern Intel based devices. In order to get the full confidence and support from the Android-oriented OEMs, they need to know that they're not putting themselves at a competitive disadvantage by building around Intel's platforms. Intel has rather sizable software development teams and resources, so the company not only needs to be at parity with the ARM (ARMH) vendors like Qualcomm and NVIDIA (NVDA) in terms of software support, but it needs to be viewed by the device vendors as a partner that will do a lot of the heavy lifting on the software side for them. This could be a real competitive advantage.

By the time Bay Trail based Android tablets roll out, Intel's partners can't be stuck releasing Android 4.2 and 4.3 devices when Google itself is pushing Android 4.4 onto all of its flagship devices (such as the Nexus 5 smartphone and Nexus 7 tablet) - Android 4.4 needs to be ready to go if Intel's partners are going to look extra competitive. I doubt that this will be the case, however, given the issues with 4.2/4.3 on Bay Trail that I saw Intel having at the Intel Developer Forum, but I do hope that a KitKat update will be available ASAP for any Bay Trail based Android deviices.

What I find interesting is how Intel is talking up "scaling up" Android for notebooks/all-in-ones, but I think just hitting parity on the mobile side of things should probably be at the top of the to-do list.

The Latest Chips Need To Be In Android Devices From Day 1

When I attended the Intel Developer Forum in early September, I was told that Android support would be coming a tad later than Windows 8.1 support for the company's latest Bay Trail SoC. I actually got to play with an Android-based Bay Trail reference device and the vast majority of the apps I tried worked well enough (just one benchmark failed to run), but there were a few minor quirks here and there.

Well, as of now, there are still no Bay Trail powered Android devices for sale. I expect that they will be for sale soon enough, but keep in mind that systems based on NVIDIA's Tegra 4 and Qualcomm's Snapdragon 800 have been available for months. Further, by the time that the Android-based Bay Trail systems are available, they'll only have a short window of opportunity (perhaps until perhaps May/June, if not earlier) before Bay Trail has to compete with the Snapdragon 805 and NVIDIA's "Logan" - both of which should be meaningfully faster on the graphics side of things (and probably close on the pure CPU side of things).

If Intel is to succeed long-term, it can't afford to be late with its Android implementations for its next generation silicon. This industry is fast-moving and even a 3 month delay can be the difference between winning the designs and being left in the cold, selling a 102mm^2 die chip for $10-$20.

Conclusion

Make no mistake - Android is the most important mobile platform today. While Microsoft's Windows is nice and will probably gain share, Intel needs to aggressively support and win designs on Android. This is what I suspect Intel is gunning for with its "40 million tablet campaign" and something that I hope to see more aggressive execution on with the company's next generation tablet products following Bay Trail (i.e. 2014's Cherry Trail and 2015's Willow Trail/Broxton).


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