Intel Corp, the world’s biggest chipmaker, opened a new front recently in a long and stuttering campaign to get its processors into mobile phones, although it appears to still have a long way to go.
It joined PC maker Acer Inc in Bangkok to unveil the Liquid C1 smartphone, a $330 device running Google Inc‘s Android operating system, which will be launched first in Thailand and then rolled out across Southeast Asia, one of the fastest-growing markets for mobile phones.
“We’ve made a conscious effort to go after these fast-growing markets as our first foray into the business,” Mike Bell, who heads Intel’s mobile division said in a telephone interview.
The company’s ninth such device in nine months, the Liquid C1 represents how far Intel has come in convincing bigger name manufacturers to take a chance with its mobile chips as the sales of personal computers and laptops plunge.
“First and foremost they have to prove they can play in this space at all,” said Scott Bicheno, senior analyst at Strategy Analytics. “There’s no obvious technical fault with Intel’s chips. It’s just that the incumbents are very well established.”
Intel has little choice but to get into mobile. It saw revenue fall 3 percent in the last quarter on weak sales of PCs, part of a steady decline in revenue growth since 2009.
It has also watched as devices like Apple Inc‘s iPad cannibalize sales of PCs.
So, in the past year, the company has launched phones with Intel chips in Europe, Africa, Latin America, Russia, India and China.
Some were effectively designed and built by Intel as what it calls “calling cards”, convincing carriers like Orange to brand and offer the phones on their own networks in France and the United Kingdom. Last year, it persuaded Chinese hardware manufacturers like ZTE Corp and Lenovo Group Ltd to build their own phones with Intel chips.
Sales have not been stellar.
Intel declined to share data, as did ZTE and Lenovo. But Melissa Chau, senior research manager at technology research group IDC, said while Lenovo shipped more than 1 million units of its best-selling phone in China in the third quarter of last year, it shipped only about 20,000 of its first Intel phone, the K800.
“That’s the scale we’re talking here,” she said.
The problem for Intel is a historical one. By its own admission it has been slow to move in a fast-changing landscape where even a decade ago it was clear that desktop PCs and even laptops were giving way to smaller, lighter, connected devices for which lower power consumption was at least as important as processor power.
In the past year or so, however, Intel seems to have shifted focus to mobile applications. It acquired Infineon Technologies’ wireless chip business in 2011 and hired and promoted phone experts like Bell.
“These guys are phone specialists and they’ve really turned us around in terms of the way we approach the market, the way we approach design,” said Uday Marty, managing director for Intel in Southeast Asia.
It seems to be working, at least in terms of quality. UK-based Bicheno says the Motorola RAZR iphone that he has been using, which has an Intel chip, performs as well as any other Android phone.
“They’ve learned a huge amount about the mobile world and how different it is, through their years of failures,” said Caroline Gabriel, head of research at consultancy Rethink Wireless. “Intel did not understand the process of getting devices onto carrier networks in the past, but it does now.”
Intel has several aces up its sleeve. For one thing, it has longstanding relationships with the likes of Acer, Lenovo and Asustek Computer Inc, all of whom are in a similar predicament: as PC makers, they all need to grow their mobile business.
But even then, they have been slow jumping aboard. Industry sources in Taiwan said that Intel had offered extensive lures to try its mobile chips. Intel executives acknowledged they had shouldered some costs but said it did not extend as far as buying a production line of the PC makers.
Intel, too, has used its experience in optimizing its computers chips for Microsoft Windows software to work closely with Google on making Android run well on its devices.
“We are not just investing in chips, we’re investing heavily in the software to run around them,” said Bell.
But questions remain. First, some analysts point to Intel’s somewhat low-key entrance into the mobile sector, threatening to typecast the company as a low-end phone chip maker.
This would doom it to playing a high-volume, low-margin game against low-cost chip makers in Taiwan like Mediatek.
Intel counters that it is targeting the $200-$500 segment because that’s where a lot of the growth is, and that it intends to eventually offer chips that, like its PC chips, range across all price points.
Intel executives also say they Will be offering a chip either later this year or early in 2014 that works on the 4G LTE networks already deployed in the United States and currently being rolled out in Europe.
The problem there, says Gabriel of Rethink Wireless, is that it will then be lagging the likes of Qualcomm and STElectronics.
Another concern is whether Intel can move beyond its usual partners. Persuading the likes of Acer and Lenovo to push out a smartphone is one thing, analysts say, but what about established phone makers like HTC Corp, let alone dominant players Samsung and Apple? Only then would Intel be able to get the volumes necessary for decent margins.
In the long run, analysts said, a company with the resources of Intel had a reasonable chance of building at least some business in mobile.
“Given Intel’s vast resources, I am not one to easily discount their ability to get into any market that they target,” said Francis Sideco, senior principal analyst at the IHS research firm.
And as Intel’s Bell points out, the rapid fall of players like BlackBerry and Nokia, and the equally rapid rise of Samsung and Apple, suggest that just because Intel is a bit player now, it may not always be.
“I was at a different firm building phones a couple of years ago and the company that was going to dominate Earth was RIM,” said Bell, who has worked at both Palm and Apple. He was referring to the Blackberry maker that has seen market share slip heavily in the past few years.
“We’ll see two years from now who’s the market leader.”