Intel Chips on Android: What are the Prospects? Can They Ever Get to the Top?
For every smartphone out there, there is a processors or SoC (System-on-a-Chip) powering it. Most of us here already know what it means, but to fulfill all righteousness, know that SoCs are synonymous with our heart beat.
There are whole lot of mobile SoC’s out there made by different manufacturers, though most them are unheard of, the most popular ones are Exynos (by Samsung), Snapdragon (by Qualcomm), Kirin (by Huawei) and MediaTek. These four are the dominant players in the SoC makert all found in the mobile phone industry, particularly the higher end for the first three. Intel is the world’s largest chip maker but ironically, they’re struggling in the mobile space. The big question is, why? Why would the biggest chip maker powering most of the world’s computers, become so feeble in the mobile ecosystem? We’ll be looking at all this, but first let’s find out how it all started.
Brief History and My Experience
Intel started working on making chips for Android devices in 2009, as an unofficial port. It became official as they announced the Moorestown platform to be used in smartphones and tablets. This led to the launch of the Avaya Flare tablet that same year — one of the very first Android device to be powered by an Intel chip.
Come 2011, Intel partnered with Google to optimize the Android platform for Intel architecture. This was a push to spread the use of Intel chips on Android. Subsequently, in that year, 30 tablets were launched, all powered by Android with the unique advantage of supporting both Android and Windows. After thatm in 2012, a few smartphones powered by Intel came into the market, good examples were the Lava Xolo X900 and the Lenovo K800.
Fast forward to 2015, we saw the launch of the Asus Zenfone 2 and other phones in the Zenfone series powered by Intel chips. I had the opportunity to own and review the phone, as did XDA; owing to the fact that it is carrying a different chip I was very skeptical of its performance till I actually used the device. The experience was awesome, as there was little to no lag at all. Though I didn’t try out any heavy games on it, the likes of Asphalt 8 or FIFA 2015, I was impressed with its performance. Best of all, it didn’t heat up during heavy usage, not one bit! This makes me wonder, why are Intel chips not up there at the top of pyramid? What could be the underlying problem?
Now The Big Problem(s)
Looking at the situation at hand, there are a whole number of reasons why Intel aren’t as successful in the mobile ecosystem. The first problem with Intel chips on mobile was that they lacked innovation and achievement. The first set of chips performed poorly when compared with competing chips. In terms of graphics, performance, heat and power management, Intel chips weren’t close. They didn’t even support 4G until recently.
It is also very important to note that almost every other SoC out there is based on the ARM architecture. This is what Qualcomm used for Snapdragon chipsets and Samsung for Exynos. The same setup is also found on Windows Phones and Blackberry. On the other hand, Intel SoC’s are based on the x86 (and x86-64) architecture — this is a scaled down, lower power version of its desktop chips. While every other OEM is working with (and have gotten used to) the ARM architecture, starting all over on a new platform (the Intel x86) was an extra burden. In fact, many apps had to be rewritten to work on x86. Even though the Intel chips were made to emulate ARM, and compile apps with x-86 supports through houdini, not every app ended up being 100% compatible. This is part of the reason why Google and Intel partnered to make an x86-optimized version of Android to tackle this software-related performance issue. Another reason why Microsoft ditched support for Office apps on x86 devices.
Funnily enough, the ARM architecture on mobiles chips weren’t popular until Nokia picked it up in the 1990’s. This made them recognized and widely used for mobiles. I learnt that Intel turned down Apple’s iPhone business, and after that Apple looked to the ARM based SoC and produced a huge hit. I suspect this is a decision Intel regrets till this day. Intel came back to Apple in 2010 bidding to power their iPads but the deal didn’t come to fruition.
The issue of pride might be another cause of the demise for Intel on Android. When one becomes a giant in a field, that element of pride sets in — they ignore innovative ideas that would’ve sustained them on the long run. A good instance is how Nokia fell to the ashes. Well, that was (or is) the case with Intel, they were slow to innovate, and stubborn. They didn’t adapt to the fast paced market, and guess what? They got swallowed.
Having highlighted some of the issues with Intel, It gladdens me to say that Intel hasn’t relented in pushing their chips to OEMs. They have gone as far as offering their chips to OEMs at a low cost and even providing technical assistance to integrate and optimize their chips on new devices, but all these efforts have yielded very little results.
In a new interesting twist, the company is now focusing on IoT (Internet of Things) and smaller chips that power it. In September 2013, they announced the Intel Quark, closely followed by Edison in January 2014 which was another Quark-powered SoC sized like an SD card. Intel is already powering the TAG Heuer’s smartwatch, the old Google Glass and many other wearable devices. What does this tell us? If they can’t rule the mobile space, then why not try to dominate the wearable platform? Some smartphones are already running decent Intel chips, like mentioned before; many of us used the ASUS ZenFone 2 and enjoyed the experience. The mobile ecosystem in which we dwell is very volatile. Competition among chip makers gets more fierce by the day, and the tide might just turn towards Intel.
Do you think Intel will end up increasing its presence in the mobile space? Leave us your thoughts!