Kyle Schurman
Sep 19, 2011

Intel inside . . . smartphones?

The recently announced partnership between Google and Intel to create Android-OS, Atom-based smartphones could represent a realistic option to further increase the strength of Android in the mobile market versus Apple offerings.

Google senior vice president of mobile technology Andy Rubin and Intel’s CEO Paul Otellini appeared together at the Intel Developer Forum to announce the partnership. Google and Intel will work together to optimize Google’s Android OS platform for use with Intel’s Atom processors. This partnership should increase the presence of Atom-powered smartphones running Android, with products appearing in the market beginning next year.

The Android OS from Google already operates more smartphones worldwide than any other operating system, so, obviously, Google and Intel are looking to increase Android’s market share further with this latest partnership. These two companies already have forged partnerships on subjects such as the Google TV initiative, and it’s interesting to see additional cooperation between the two tech giants.

It’s almost as if Google feels the need to ground itself. Google’s strengths have always been in software and services, but with its recent purchase of Motorola Mobility and by partnering with Intel, Google seems to be attempting to showcase its ability to optimize its software services for use with specific hardware products and chips, something Apple has always done.

If that’s Google’s aim, creating additional partnerships with Intel is a pretty good step in that direction. Intel certainly has proven the strength of its Atom processor to drive small computing devices that need to conserve battery power. For example, the Atom has been a popular choice to power netbooks. Various versions of Atom also could drive progression in the tablet market, where Google has a lot of potential for growth with its Android platform.

When compared to ARM processors, though, Atom isn’t as power efficient. It’s expected that as Intel announces new versions of its Atom processor, starting with the Medfield 32nm Atom processor in 2012, the power efficiency of Atom will greatly improve, making it a more viable choice for smartphones and tablets, and allowing Intel to better compete with low-powered chips from ARM Holdings, Nvidia and Texas Instruments.

Atom has long been rumored as a processor that will appear in smartphones, so the recent Google-Intel announcement wasn’t a complete surprise. Certainly, however, Atom has a lot of catching up to do in the smartphone market, where ARM chips have dominated for Android OS devices. And while Intel long has been king in the traditional computing market with its x86 processors, it needs to make more inroads in the growing mobile hardware market to maintain its strength moving into the future. To make up for lost time, Intel needs Google’s help. By partnering with Google, Intel can give Atom a strong push toward its entry into all mobile markets, including smartphones.

One additional under-the-radar benefit to an increased Google-Intel partnership is that Google will potentially gain access to a host of engineers at Intel who focus on software. Intel’s software design capabilities aren’t as well known as its chip design strengths, but Intel potentially can help strengthen Android’s ability to function on a variety of platforms, including an eventual migration to netbooks and traditional computers. Even with the potential for explosive growth in the tablet market, computers, laptops and netbooks that run on Intel processors continue to outnumber tablets overwhelmingly in today’s marketplace.

By obtaining Intel’s help in translating Android to the traditional computing operating system market, Google can compete with Apple, and possibly even Microsoft, in areas where those two companies have dominated the OS market for decades.

Whatever weaknesses Google has had in the hardware arena can be shored up through a partnership with a powerful chip maker and hardware innovator — and, yes, even a software innovator — like Intel. This partnership for creating Android-OS, Atom-based smartphones may be only the first step.